[Note: This review will contain SPOILERS for this book and The Privilege of the Sword, read at your own risk.]
So, finally, after mentioning it a bunch of times on this blog, I was able to finish this novel over the weekend. Some of you may remember my glowing review of The Privilege of the Sword, and how I was so impressed with it that I resolved to quit being so indecisive and finally purchase the first of the books that are set in Ellen Kushner’s unnamed city.
Swordspoint, like PotS, is part of the “fantasy of manners” genre (with Kushner practically invented) that is, fantasy that is less like epic fantasy and more like a comedy of manners. As with PotS, there’s no magic or fantastical creatures in Swordspoint, only highly-trained swordsmen and buckets of political intrigue.
Swordspoint tells the story of Richard St. Vier, a master swordsman in high demand for his skills as a duelist, Alec, a bitter young man who is St. Vier’s lover, and Michael Godwin, a young lord who is infatuated with the Duchess Tremontaine.
I should probably say more about the plot, but the fact is that the plot is a bit harder to pin down than it is in PotS. In PotS, you have a young woman learning swordplay at the behest of her crazy uncle. In Swordspoint, you have a lot of political maneuvering and angst before the plot says “Ahem, I am here and would like to get moving now….” and I’d tell you more about it, but then I’d just spoil the entire book.
So, since I can’t say a whole lot about the plot, let’s focus, like the book does, on the characters. St. Vier and Alec definitely fall into that category that, while they aren’t entirely unsympathetic, they also don’t seem very real. Alec’s character in particular took some getting used to. He’s still as difficult to pin down as he was in PotS, but now he seems much more cruel and petty, goading nobles into starting fights just so St. Vier can kill them. I suppose you could sum him up by saying “Alec is a troubled young man.”
St. Vier, I felt, fared a bit better, but that’s because he’s much more subdued than Alec–until the very end, when he does something horrible (for honour’s sake) and then I was kind of side-eying him a bit.
The third P.O.V. character (besides the major villain) is Michael Godwin, who reminds me of Katherine from PotS. He’s a young noble with a major crush on a duchess, who wants to learn swordplay to impress her. You don’t see as much of him as either St. Vier or Alec, but his scenes are a nice change from St. Vier and Alec running around killing random nobles or angsting at each other (did I mention Alec is troubled?).
I guess to sum up how I feel about this book is that it wasn’t a terrible book, I just vastly prefer PotS. I felt as if it was very slow to get going, but once the plot did finally realize that it had a part to play in the book (around chapter fourteen, and then it kind of drops away until chapter twenty), everything fit together into a satisfying conclusion.
As far as any potentially triggery things, there are hints that Alec has been abused and that the abuse was sexual in nature, but he never really comes out and says anything. There’s a point where the antagonist gets a little aggressive with his servant/mistress, which read more like particularly angry sex/necking than rape to me (it’s certainly not as explicit as the rape in PotS), but YMMV. As with PotS, the sexual aspects of the book are explicit enough so you know what’s going on, but definitely not smutty unless you’re really sensitive to this sort of thing (or, as some Amazon reviews indicate, you think that two men in love who are holding hands amounts to exhibitionism).
Overall, I don’t know whether to tell you to read this first because it sets up the events in PotS or to read PotS because I felt it was the better novel. I should note that both novels are pretty self-contained, so don’t worry about missing out unless you really want to know about Alec and Richard’s past with Lord Ferris. As I’ve often said, I’ve read much worse, but it just seemed to lack the heart and chuckle-worthy antics of PotS in favour of something a little darker and dramatic. Again, it’s not terrible, it’s just not as good as her later work. Clearly I’ve been spoiled, but I’m intrigued enough that I probably will purchase The Fall of the Kings.