Swordspoint - magic, without, you know, magic

Swordspoint - Ellen Kushner

Swordspoint is something I’ve thought about rereading now and then, but never did – till I found its sequel, The Privilege of the Sword, at Books & Co., happily, and ordered the third book, written with Delia Sherman: The Fall of the Kings. This first book tells the tale of Richard St. Vier, who is a swordsman in a society where the nobles hire swordsmen to fight their duels for them, sometimes to the death. In fact, St. Vier is the pre-eminent swordsman, respected and not a little feared. He can be found living in the gilded slums of Riverside (where the nobles used to live before they crossed the river and raised the property values on The Hill) with his lover Alec, a somewhat mysterious scholar who is not quite dealing with a full deck. I don’t know exactly what a modern diagnosis would be; manic depression (or whatever it ought to be called), I suppose: he migrates with great speed and no warning from sharp and sardonic and relatively stable, to barely contained and horrifyingly reckless (in which state he taunts the most dangerous elements of a dangerous neighborhood until Richard has to defend him with steel), to a still and angry bleakness (in which state he cuts himself and destroys precious objects and fights, bitterly, with Richard). Those around him simply consider him mad.

The writing is frighteningly intelligent, as rich and dense and decadent as pure shortbread, with, perhaps, as deceptively few ingredients but with just the same complexity of flavor. And it seems just as bad for you. The story and the characters teem with vice, but God in heaven are they fun. The fantasy element of Swordspoint lies not in magic or even in its lack (as in the later book), but in its location in a fairy tale unnamed city, beginning with an image out of fairy tale and carrying the aura through.

The plot spirals inward and inward, with politics and sex and intrigue; everyone knows part of what’s going on, and no one knows everything. Including, sometimes, the reader. It’s complex and intricate, like lace made of steel mesh. And so good. The book is fantasy purely in the sense of an undefined setting, swords and swordsmen and horses and nobles. There is no magic, but it’s not that that makes this a fantasy either (unlike The Fall of Kings).

Well, and the writing. The writing is magic.