Swordspoint – Ellen Kushner

I became aware of this book through Dragons, Heroes and Wizards‘ review of it and its companion books in Ellen Kushner’s trilogy: the review intrigued me enough to try it out as soon as I could, since it promised to be a very different kind of fantasy than I’m used to.

It is indeed different: there is no heroic quest to be completed, no bloody war being fought between competing armies, no magic or dark entities trying to take over the world. Swordspoint is more like a peek into an eighteenth-century-like society, with complex rules centering on duel and many layers of inter-crossing currents of intrigue.  Just for once it was pleasant to immerse myself in a story where the fate of the world was not in jeopardy…

The book is quite well written, the style precise and exquisitely crafted like one of the porcelain chocolate cups used by the nobility depicted in the story. The descriptions of the two sides of society – the nobles on the Hill and the common folk in the dilapidated town of Riverside – are vivid and bring this world into sharp, three-dimensional life with almost cinematic quality. Some of the rules are very intriguing, especially those concerning duels and the whole swordsmen’s code – they speak of detailed, careful and loving world-building.

But. Unfortunately there is a “but”…

Much as this book is an engaging exercise in style, it failed to involve me on an emotional level: the characters, though well drawn, did not reach out and “speak” to me – as if the highly stylized rules of behavior governing this world prevented them from connecting with me, the reader.  I saw the actors on the stage, so to speak, and they were beautifully dressed and doing an admirable job of portraying their characters, but something was missing.

The best (or worst?) example comes from the two main characters, Richard and Alec: we are told, shown, that they are lovers, but personally I could not perceive any definite feelings between them – and what’s more I failed to understand what could be binding them together, or make them tick. Richard is a master swordsman, the best in Riverside, almost a living legend: besides that, little else is offered about him, except his desire to protect the flighty, petulant Alec, whose reckless behavior seems bent on provoking duels for his lover to win.  They never gave off a “couple vibe”, so to speak: when at some point Alec leaves, all Richard does is take in the fact and think that maybe “it’s better this way”. I confess I was mystified…

On a wider scale, the other characters peopling this book feel just as sketched, as if filling the need for the basic figures in a tale: the young, restless heir of a good family; the scheming, evil noble (complete with black eye-patch); the clever duchess working her webs like a spider; and so on.  Not a single one of them gave off a sparkle of real life to me, and that detracted heavily from the beauty of the setting.

A splendid exercise in style, as I said before, but for me a book must be something more – it has to tell me a story I can lose myself in, and here I was – sadly – not lost at all.

My Rating: 6/10

3 thoughts on “Swordspoint – Ellen Kushner

  1. I hate it when I can't connect with the characters of a story, too. Unfortunately, I don't really know what makes me connect with some characters and not others.

    Do you know what does it for you? {curious smile}


  2. I'm not aware of the…mechanics of connection, I just know that some characters “speak” to me, and others don't – probably it's very much the same as with real life people…
    What's strange in this particular book is that the story was interesting – intrigue and deceit and convoluted plots – but the characters were not: if I look at it as an exercise in style, I can appreciate it very much, but the soul… ah, the soul seems not to be there. If I were to make a musical comparison I would say that Kushner's writing is like Mozart – wonderfully balanced but too stylized – while I prefer Chopin's passionate style. It's not something I can easily translate into words…


  3. Thanks. I was just curious. I usually don't really know why one character catches me and another doesn't, either. {Smile}

    That's an interesting comparison with Mozart and Chopin. I hadn't thought of it that way. {Smile}


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