Set in a fictional Georgian-era-type society, Swordspoint: A Melodrama of Manners is a “fantasy of manners” or “mannerpunk” novel. In contrast to epic fantasy, where the characters are fighting with swords and the fate of the universe is often at stake, mannerpunk novels are usually set in a hierarchical class-based society where the characters battle with words and wit. There may or may not be magic or sorcery involved and, in many ways, this subgenre of fantasy literature is more like historical fiction that takes place in an imaginary universe. The focus is on societal structures and social commentary. Characters may not be changing THE world, but they’re changing THEIR world. If you like Jane Austen and P.G. Wodehouse, mannerpunk may be just your thing.
In Swordspoint, the infamous swordsman Richard St. Vier is a tool of the upper class. Those who can afford his exorbitant rates may hire him to challenge a lover who’s spurned them, kill off a rival, or just make a party more exciting. Perhaps Richard wouldn’t have taken that last assignment if he’d known how the nobles were scheming before the next election. Now he’s been dragged into their business, and it’s quite a quagmire. On top of that, he has to deal with the eccentricities of his lover Alec, a university dropout. Meanwhile, playboy Michael Godwin is pursuing the widowed duchess, trying to evade the amorous intentions of an important councilman, and secretly pursuing his desire to be a swordsman like Richard St. Vier.
Swordspoint is somewhat original considering that it’s one of the first “mannerpunk” fantasies and features several bisexual characters (unusual for a book published in 1987). The book is highly recommended by Neil Gaiman and is part of his new Neil Gaiman Presents audiobook collection. For this reason, I guess, I was expecting more.
The story is diverting — a nice enough way to spend a few hours — but that’s really about all I can say. All of the characters are unlikable, nastily plotting and scheming against each other, abusing each other, or being abused. Richard St. Vier could have been a great character, but his love for Alec was incomprehensible. Alec is boring, sullen, selfish, possibly crazy, and completely without any noticeable value other than his good looks. Why is Richard willing to kill anyone who messes with Alec, a man who’s always trying to provoke situations in which Richard will be forced to fight a duel? Not a convincing love affair. I also didn’t think that Swordspoint, supposedly a comedy of manners, which relies on witty and clever dialogue, was particularly witty or clever. The plot, though diverting, was not exciting or clever either.
In its favor, the book is well-written, with smooth prose and excellent pacing. I really liked Riverside, the low-class area where Richard lives. The storyline in which Michael Godwin leads Lord Horn on, changes his mind, and then tries to evade Horn’s advances, is funny. I was just expecting more.
The audiobook version is narrated by Ellen Kushner herself (who you know, if you’ve heard her on NPR, has a nice voice) with the addition of a “full cast” who reads some of the dialogue some of the time (sometimes Kushner reads the dialogue). Kushner’s tone is light and breezy and better with the narration than the dialogue. When she reads the dialogue, her breeziness and lack of variation in tone doesn’t help her characters’ personalities. However, the actors who occasionally do the dialogue (Dion Graham, Katherine Kellgren, Robert Faas, Nick Sullivan, and Simon Jones) are excellent. The sound effects that are occasionally added to the background are atrocious. For example, when the nobles are drinking tea from fine china cups and saucers, it sounds like they’re in a downtown diner. Fires crackling and clocks ticking disturb the narration. It’s ludicrous, but fortunately the sound effects are infrequent.
I’m eager to try one of Ellen Kushner’s other mannerpunk novels. Swordspoint: A Melodrama of Manners was just okay, but I like Riverside and plan to try the sequel, The Privilege of the Sword, which takes place years later and features a female protagonist. It’s also available from Neil Gaiman Presents and I’ve already purchased it. I’ll let you know.