Swordspoint: A Melodrama of Manners

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsSwordspoint: A Melodrama of Manners by Ellen KushnerSwordspoint: A Melodrama of Manners by Ellen Kushner

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.

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsThe 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.

~Kat Hooper


fantasy and science fiction book reviews“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.

~Marion Deeds


book review Ellen Kushner SwordspointSwordspoint is the sort of fantasy that isn’t really “fantasy” at all (no wizards, no dragons), but more of an “alternate history” where a realistic story is set in a world that might have been. It is set in “The City,” a sort-of London located in an England slightly different from the one in the history we know. The two major changes are these: First, the monarchy has been abolished and replaced with an elected body. Second, society is more sexually open and tolerant, and there is no stigma attached to being gay or bisexual.

Our hero, or should I say our anti-hero, is Richard St Vier, swordsman for hire. He makes his living by fighting duels for nobles who aren’t skilled enough to fight their own. He lives in Riverside, the lower-class ghetto, with his lover Alec, an educated and sarcastic young man who at times betrays hints of noble birth. Richard gets embroiled in the plots of the nobility, all of them scheming with and against each other, and suddenly he and Alec are both in danger as they end up over their heads in intrigue.

I was about to dismiss Swordspoint as fluff until about two-thirds of the way in. While it was entertaining, it seemed to be just a soap opera about the schemes and love affairs of a group of shallow, unlikeable people. But as the plot thickens, the best surprises in the novel are in store for us. We find out just how far Richard will go to save Alec, and vice versa. Somehow, the amoral assassin and the secretive cynic turn out to be truly in love, and when I found that out, it made both of them twice as sympathetic as they had been before — and I found myself rooting for them. Is their love strong enough to withstand the machinations of the nobles? Read on and see, and then at the end you will be rewarded with perhaps the best final paragraph I’ve read in years — about the messiness of life as contrasted with the tidy endings of fiction.

A fun, swashbuckling read for a lazy weekend — it isn’t “deep” or very long, but it is entertaining.

~Kelly Lasiter

Publisher: On the treacherous streets of Riverside, a man lives and dies by the sword. Even the nobles on the Hill turn to duels to settle their disputes. Within this elite, dangerous world, Richard St. Vier is the undisputed master, as skilled as he is ruthless — until a death by the sword is met with outrage instead of awe, and the city discovers that the line between hero and villain can be altered in the blink of an eye.

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KAT HOOPER, who started this site in June 2007, earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience and psychology at Indiana University (Bloomington) and now teaches at the University of North Florida. When she reads fiction, she wants to encounter new ideas and lots of imagination. She wants to view the world in a different way. She wants to have her mind blown. She loves beautiful language and has no patience for dull prose, vapid romance, or cheesy dialogue. She prefers complex characterization, intriguing plots, and plenty of action. Favorite authors are Jack Vance, Robin Hobb, Kage Baker, William Gibson, Gene Wolfe, Richard Matheson, and C.S. Lewis.

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MARION DEEDS, with us since March 2011, is retired from a 35-year career with county government, where she met enough interesting characters and heard enough zany stories to inspire at least two trilogies’ worth of fantasy fiction. Currently she spends part of her time working at a local used bookstore. She is an aspiring writer herself and, in the 1990s, had short fiction published in small magazines like Night Terrors, Aberrations, and in the cross-genre anthology The Magic Within. On her blog Deeds & Words, she reviews many types of books and follows developments in food policy and other topics.

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KELLY LASITER, with us since July 2008, is a mild-mannered academic administrative assistant by day, but at night she rules over a private empire of tottering bookshelves. Kelly is most fond of fantasy set in a historical setting (a la Jo Graham) or in a setting that echoes a real historical period (a la George RR Martin and Jacqueline Carey). She also enjoys urban fantasy and its close cousin, paranormal romance, though she believes these subgenres’ recent burst in popularity has resulted in an excess of dreck. She is a sucker for pretty prose (she majored in English, after all) and mythological themes.

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3 comments

  1. Kat, did you invent “mannerpunk?” That’s brilliant!

    • No, sorry! In the review I’ve linked to a wikipedia article about it. It says:
      The term was first used in print by science fiction critic Donald G. Keller in an article, The Manner of Fantasy, in the April, 1991 issue of The New York Review of Science Fiction, although author Ellen Kushner has said that she suggested the term to Keller.

  2. Well, it’s still awesome.

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