Swordspoint by Ellen Kushner
“Let the fairy tale begin on a winter’s morning, then, with one drop of blood new-fallen on the ivory snow: a drop as bright as a clear-cut ruby, red as a single spot of claret on the lace cuff.”
I recently treated myself to the luxury of re-reading Ellen Kushner’s brilliant novel Swordspoint. I found my old Bantam Spectra paperback from 2003 (reprinted from the original 1987 publication date) with Tom Canty’s intricate, lovely, inaccurate cover. This story has held up. Everything I loved about it on the first read I loved still… and I have a different take on a couple of things, this time out.
Kushner creates a complete world with an aristocracy, a merchant class, rural farmers and both rural and urban poor. She herself calls Swordspoint a “drama of manners,” as the aristocracy has built up an elaborate set of social rules. Dueling is an established way for males of the upper class to settle disagreements, but for practical reasons, it became acceptable for the aristos to hire duelists or swordsmen to fight on their behalf. This created a loophole that allows for legal murder. One aristocrat can hire a swordsman before his target finds out, and have the swordsman challenge the target directly. Because the aristocrats have no real experience with swordplay (or killing) they lose. The thrill of a duel has become social entertainment, and many swordsmen hire themselves out to perform exhibitions or act as honor guards at weddings and large parties.
Richard St. Vier is the best and most dangerous of the swords for hire. He lives in the bad part of the city, Riverside. St. Vier is the man the people who live on the Hill hire when they want someone killed. He does not give exhibitions, he does not “do weddings” — although in the elliptical, euphemistic language of the city, this phrase has another meaning — he lives only to fight duels. Currently, St. Vier is living with a strange cast-down university student named Alec. Alec is feared and distrusted by the denizens of Riverside because he starts trouble, knowing St Vier will step in and rescue him. There are many rumors about Alec; that he is an aristocrat who is slumming, that he is some aristo’s illegitimate son, and many more. Several things are very clear; he is highly intelligent, very well educated, madly in love with St. Vier and terrifyingly neurotic. When I first read this book I was startled that Kushner could make me care about someone so frighteningly self-destructive and destructive of others. Reading the book again, knowing what was coming, I still found myself drawn to this damaged, dangerous and brilliant young man. Alex is a fascinating character and a good foil for St. Vier.
In addition to the everyday lives of St. Vier and Alec, the book follows the Duchess Tremontaine, a powerful widow, and the aristocratic men who seek to make use of her power for their advancement. The duchess is not above using people herself. Very soon a plot has wrapped its tentacles around St. Vier, Alec and the duchess. The story and the characters are complex and completely plausible. St. Vier is caught in a dilemma that pits his own values against his love for Alec, and when he chooses, he finds himself on trial before the very men who hire him to do their dirty work. It’s neurotic, suicidal Alec who must fall back on what he does best — learn things — to figure out a way to mount a true defense for his lover.
I was so engrossed in the story the first time I read it that I missed some of the grace notes. For example, towards the end of the book we discover that Alec left (or was thrown out of) the university for a discovery he and his friends made. On this read, the importance of that discovery widened my eyes a bit, even though it is ignored by the character Alec relates it to. It is completely believable that the second character would not care; but it adds another bit of realism to this world.
I also appreciated an off-handed comment in a different way this time. St. Vier’s antecedents are shrouded in mystery, but there are plenty of rumors. It is undisputed that he is illegitimate. At one point, he makes a comment about the St. Vier family, and Alec says, “Of the banking St. Viers?” On first read, I took this as sarcasm, the way you might say, “Oh, the Martha’s Vineyard Joneses?” On this read, I still took it as sarcasm, and I wondered if it were true. If St. Vier’s mother were the daughter of a powerful, not aristocratic, banking family, exiled because of her pregnancy, that gives St. Vier a different place in the grand scheme of the city. It’s a delicate touch, a hint of purple in the painting of the white cloud, just to add depth and contrast.
Kushner’s prose is lyrical. It can be lush, but it can also be precise, and she uses the speech rhythms of her different characters to delineate class and character. Alec speaks differently from St. Vier, and the duchess speaks differently from both of them.
Twenty-five years later, every note of this book still rings true. People scheme and betray one another over a glass of wine; the wealthy hire people to do the things they dare not; a careless moment of anger can kill a love; and love, sometimes, survives. I have not yet read the sequel to Swordspoint, but having re-read it, I am interested to see what Kushner does in the follow-up. I expected a treat when I picked up this book, and what I got was a delight.