First published in 1987 - though rooted in short stories dating back to the early 80s, one of which is reproduced at the end of the text in this edition - Ellen Kushner's Swordspoint is a rich example of what SF/F circles sometimes called 'interstitial fiction', a sort of confluence of fantasy with modernism. While a lot of these interstitial narratives (or the New Weird, or whatever else it has been labelled since last I checked) plump for modern or near-modern settings, Kushner's glittering world looks a little farther back for its inspiration, if not so far back as most conventional fantasy. As the author herself puts it in her afterword, the city at its heart is
[M]ade up of my favourite bits and pieces of every other city I'd walked in or read about: Shakespeare's London, Georgette Heyer's Paris, Damon Runyon's New York, for starters...
The society is a highly stratified one, according to birth and economic standing (and to some extent by gender, within the classes). This is mirrored in a division of civic space: the noble families (a council from whose number rule the city) live in the elevated reaches of the Hill; everyone else crowds into the alleys and decaying tenements of Riverside. The scope for moving between the two is limited. Riversiders go up to the Hill as servants, while the nobles sometimes slum it in Riverside for insalubrious entertainment and dodgy dealings.
The protagonists, Richard and Alec, are two characters who cross this boundary rather more frequently - if with little greater ease - than most. Richard is a swordsman, in considerable demand among the nobility for duelling 'challenges' (effectively contract killings), and prized for his efficiency and discretion in such matters. Alec, meanwhile, is a (former) student of the University with a noble's demeanour, although he remains cagey about his background. They're also lovers, and live together openly in Riverside, sexuality - at least for men - being one of the few areas in society that is relatively unconstrained.
Their relationship is a complex joy of fierce mutual dependence and deep tenderness. Both men by turns stimulate and temper each others' worst traits and excesses. Alec is the perfect object for Richard's damaged sense of honour; someone whom he can both protect and be seen to protect through the very public means of challenging (and frequently killing) anyone who threatens his partner. Alec gives his life purpose and joy, holding him back from being simply an emotionless murderer-for-hire. Protecting him also helps Richard to assuage old guilt; we learn in passing that Richard killed an old lover, Jessamyn, in a violent quarrel.
Alec, meanwhile, thrills to Richard's violence on his behalf, often deliberately provoking people into such situations. At the same time, however, his self-destructive tendencies leave him half-hoping that eventually he will find someone from whom Richard cannot protect him. Alec is a witty, urbane physical coward, learning the ways of a world quite alien to him through his life with Richard - and helping his partner to negotiate the more dangerous reaches of the world he knows, that of the politicking on the Hill.
Violence is, as may be imagined, a fact of everyday life in this society. It is deeply unwise to walk around alone at night (which is, of course, why Alec does it); bystanders instantly and callously wager upon any conflict that looks set to end in a fight; entertainment is found in cock-fighting and the like. This mindset extends to mortality: personal honour on the Hill is built around the legalised brutality of the challenge system, while tavern disputes in Riverside are settled on a first-body-on-the-floor basis. In both cases, questions are rarely asked, and the immediacy and ever-present nature of the violence naturally strips it of much of the shock for participants and witnesses - but not so for the average reader, for whom violence is something glamourised on TV, sensationalised in the media, or a devastating personal bolt from the blue, rather than endemic in daily life. In this, the novel achieves that sense of dislocation and otherness that is (or should be, done properly) common to both fantasy and historical fiction - an encounter with a subtly different sensibility and worldview.
The book isn't without its bumps and flaws. The dialogue sometimes veers into the melodramatic (although, given the book's subtitle, perhaps I shouldn't be surprised), often shouldering a burden of emotional expression that ought to be shared to a greater degree by body language and viewpoint narrative. (The latter suffers mostly, I think, from Kushner's determination to keep secret impending plot twists). There are times when it feels as if Kushner struggles to make it hold together as a novel; the short-story origins of much of the material are quite plain in places. The pacing can be choppy, with characters (e.g. Michael) and storylines frequently disappearing for long periods. The structure especially falters towards the overly-talky, too-many-revelations climax - two of the main participants in which, Lord Ferris and the Duchess, are both under-explored prior to their pivotal moments (indeed, the former's personality and history seem to be created largely for the end).
The latter point, while a criticism, I also recognise very much as a function of the novel's narrative focus: Richard and Alec are largely uncaring of what goes on outside their own little world, believing (wrongly) they can remain aloof and unaffected, despite one being the nobility's assassin of choice, and the other being... well, wouldn’t want to give that away. ;-) The fact that the reader remains in the dark is thus perfectly understandable; neither man looks, since neither wants to know. Nonetheless, we do get PoV characters from the Hill; I would have liked a little more, a little earlier, on the broader significance of the politicking, rather than a great big splodge of exposition at the end.
On the whole, then, it's a beautiful first novel with all a first novel's shakiness. Swordspoint gives us memorable characters in a rich world – I loved the fireworks displays, the unseasonable outdoor parties, the dicing, the torch-hiring, the relationships – couched in elegant prose and some very witty dialogue exchanges. I look forward to reading the sequel(s)...
Edited to note an entertaining wee debate in progress - the place of 'politics' in fantasy:
Jeff Vandermeer's original essay
Scott Bakker's response: 'Politics in Fantasy Redux'
Reply from Jeff (and Evil Monkey): 'Truth, Politics, Sword Fights and Bakker'