My book group‘s selection of the month, which we’ll be discussing later this week, is Ellen Kushner’s Swordspoint – a book that was one of the best things to happen to me twenty years ago or so. This isn’t the only time I’ve picked it up since it first rearranged my head back in the ’90s, but it’s been a while.
Returning to an old favorite, especially one from your teenage years, is a dodgy prospect; you’re never quite sure if the Suck Fairy‘s been at your toys while you were away. In this case, I needn’t have worried. If anything, it’s a book I find more to love about now, if only because twenty-plus years of thinking about stories and language and fantasy have given me a better appreciation for all the things Kushner does right.
(Mild spoilers follow.)
First off, all the things you may have heard about how beautifully written this book is are absolutely true. I’m sure I noticed this to some extent on my first read, just out of a vague sense of being able to tell a leaden phrase from an elegant one, but I’m paying closer attention now to the way she puts words together. It’s not that every page here is full of glittering, clever, poetic prose the way that, say, Patricia McKillip or Susanna Clarke’s novels are, though Kushner is certainly more than capable of that; look at the two utterly gorgeous opening paragraphs, for one thing, or the faux-Shakespearean blank verse from The Swordsman’s Tragedy. What she does here is in some ways even more impressive: she writes so well that it’s easy not to notice what she’s doing. When a writer has that kind of chops, it’s easy to show off, and the fact that she doesn’t, and just gets out of her own way and on with the story, is lovely to watch once you’ve noticed.
Kushner has said that she considers Swordspoint to be an interstitial work, a book that straddles the line between genre and literary fiction. (And it is, though I note that fantasy fans seem to have been more enthusiastic about embracing it than their counterparts in the mainstream, for whatever that’s worth.) The tone of its writing is one contributing factor in that; it’s not a book with a narrative voice that reads much like a standard fantasy novel, or at least not like one might expect a fantasy novel to read.1 And in a similar vein, it’s a secondary-world fantasy that sidesteps the baseline tropes of the genre: no wizards, no dragons, no quests, no True Kings or Dark Lords; hell, not only is there not a map at the front, we never learn the name of the city2 where it’s set, much less anything of substance about the world beyond. And though there are plenty of swordfights and devious plots and Lords this-and-that, it’s set in a nebulous early-modernish era – the equivalent of somewhere between Elizabethan and Regency – that’s as far removed from the cod-Medieval world of Middle-Earth’s imitators as we are from the Enlightenment.
But there’s another level or two of interstitiality to consider about Swordspoint in light of its title-page designation as “A Melodrama of Manners.” The subtlety of its language makes it easy to overlook that it is in fact a melodrama, full of scheming nobles, fights to the death, lost heirs, captures and escapes, and other trappings of swashbuckling pulp; for Heaven’s sake, there’s even a villain with an eyepatch here. (Of course, Swordspoint also in turn subverts many of the cliches of melodrama – but by no means all of them.) The fact that Kushner embraces so many of these tropes and still manages to write a story with real-seeming people in it is a remarkable accomplishment, and one I think she gets too little notice for. And there’s a sense in which this trick is only possible because she embraces both the fantasy elements and the litfic approach.
As to the second part of that subtitle, Swordspoint is, of course, notable for being the seminal work in the Fantasy of Manners subgenre, though it’s an aspect that took me until this reread to really appreciate. So much of what happens in this book is subtext coded into social interactions, and it’s rewarding to pay close attention to how the characters are all watching each other for the nearly-imperceptible cues that will reveal their true intentions. And, of course, the machinery of its story is very much driven by propriety, and the expectations of what is Done and Not Done, and what happens when people – powerful and otherwise – make choices to violate those codes.
While I’m at it, there’s a thing or two that bears saying about the way that story unfolds. Genre fiction has been lauded in recent years as standing fast as the holdout of “plot” in the world of letters,3 but Swordspoint is hard to mistake for a plot-driven novel; there’s a plot there, certainly, but it takes seventy-odd pages for its wheels to really get turning, and I would insist they’re pages much needed to set up the characters, the world, and the tone that pervades everything. (And I might as well confess now that much of what people who read for plot – I nearly wrote “plot fetishists,” but I realize that’s not fair nor nice – talk about looking for in books is lost on me, especially when it takes the form of complaints or criticism about plots or plot elements that don’t work. Partly I think I resist the idea, which often seems to go hand-in-hand with plot-focused reading, that efficiency of delivery is something all fiction should strive for. Anyway, I’m awfully glad that those are things Swordspoint doesn’t seem to much give a damn about.)
So there’s one further thing that should be touched on when discussing this book, and it’s the thing that was possibly the biggest bolt of lightning to me on my first encounter with it back in my youth. Which means it’s also a potential trap, the factor I was concerned might make me likely to be unfairly prejudiced in this book’s favor, and the reason I was relieved to discover the craftsmanship of Swordspoint still holds up so well in all the other respects. At seventeen, taking on the dawning understanding that I was (to use terms I’d learn later) a Kinsey Nonzero, to get the gift of a world where the gender of one’s lovers was no more remarkable (and, indeed, a great deal less important) than the season’s fashions – it’s hard to quite articulate just what an amazing thing that was. And it’s also just the sort of thing that’s especially vulnerable to the Suck Fairy’s touch, where a book that deals with a social issue in a way that seems brilliant and revelatory when you’re young turns out later to have all the delicacy and nuance of a wrecking ball. So it’s especially nice to see that Swordspoint is still wonderful in this respect too. It helps that Kushner’s reveal of this aspect of her world is a master lesson in incluing (though not as much as I may have thought as a teenager, where the penny didn’t drop for me about Richard and Alec until they were actually in bed together; now I read the buildup to that and wonder how I could have possibly missed it) and that it’s so thoroughly taken for granted in the narrative. This was a remarkable thing to do in 1987, and it’s still pretty remarkable now, when gritty and grimdark4 are more fashionable modes, and even socially-conscious writers like China Miéville are as likely as not to construct imaginary worlds that port over all the prejudices of our history and then some. Is this a wish-fulfillment fantasy by a queer author for a queer (and queer-sympathetic) readership? It sure is; and so what? Iain M. Banks makes a pretty persuasive argument that wish-fulfillment is one of the high and worthy goals of fiction; it’s the function of art as a mirror, but one that shows us “not what we are, but what we may be.”
Swordspoint was one of my very favorite and most-treasured books of my early adulthood, when I loved it with a fierce and irrational ardor. It’s also a delight to return to years later and discover that it wasn’t such an irrational love after all. Gene Wolfe’s useful yardstick of a great book is one that can be read with pleasure and reread with greater pleasure, and this one fits that measure like a hand in an elegant velvet glove.
Update 6/22: Lots of good stuff came up in the discussion of this at last night’s book group5 meetup. One of my fellow readers felt that one of the things missing for him is that the motivation of the characters outside the core POV cast is often opaque, so they feel like cardboard stock characters moving through their story-necessary actions just because, well, that’s the sort of thing they do. And I have to concede that my interpretation of these people as being driven by subtly hinted-at social machinery may be a generous one. (It is, after all, a melodrama.) In particular, he felt that the villain Ferris6 is underserved in this way, who doesn’t seem to have a lust for his goals that’s proportionate to the effort he puts into his machinations.
Some of this may be a matter of style, but my fellow reader makes an intriguing point here; as he also reminded us, one of the defining qualities of the traditional Comedy of Manners is that, while the things the characters want may be objectively trivial, from their own perspective they’re always matters of world-ending importance. And this is one thing that seems to have fallen aside while Swordspoint was making the transition from its inspirations to its final state. I can overlook it because of all the things the novel does so beautifully, but I can also see why someone else might not be as willing.
(On the other hand, speaking of motivations, something I noticed but left out of my initial writeup was that, years ago, the character of Alec seemed a little impenetrable and capricious to me; now, I appreciate what a perfectly-drawn, unblinking portrayal he is of a person suffering from untreated bipolar disorder. It’s a precise and specific enough rendering that I suspect there was someone Kushner cared a great deal about who made it onto the page there, and if so she has my very deep sympathies.)
Another thing of particular interest that came up in discussion touched on one of the other socially-conscious aspects of Swordspoint that I glossed over to talk about its LGBTQ cred, which is the way it deals with class. It’s a book that is perfectly willing to indulge in the glamor and sexiness of its noble characters, while it also doesn’t look away from the effect it has on the working poor of Riverside to have so much wealth and power concentrated in a small, more or less unrestrained elite. (A timely theme indeed, meeting us unexpectedly all the way from 1987 to today.) Our host fielded the question: What missing social force would act as a balancing factor in this? I, ever the conscientious Unitarian, answered “a strong middle class”; he suggested “a king.” And right there, I think, you have a nice summation of the argument fantasy has been having with itself since, well, Tolkien – a conversation that Swordspoint is definitely deeply and self-awarely a part of.7
1 I’m palming a card here, in that there really isn’t all that much out there that reads like a “standard fantasy novel,” even in the big doorstop series. The thing that’s commonly referred to as “extruded fantasy product” isn’t even especially representative of the field these days, and wasn’t even in 1987.
2 The careful reader will have noticed that “Riverside” is only the name of the district where the lower-class citizens live, just as the nobles reside on the Hill. Kushner has said that the characters talk about where they live as “the city” in the same way residents of, say, New York do; there’s no need to name it, since there’s no other city they could possibly be referring to.
3 Not a point universally agreed-on, though. See here for one useful counterpoint.
4 Which I don’t disapprove of by any means. But it’s nice to have more colors in the palette than Black and Dark Black.
5 And I should take a moment to mention that this is a very good group, who are extremely good at picking apart the texts we dive into while maintaining enthusiasm for both the book and the genre. I feel myself more than a little lucky to have found them.
6 As an aside, I note that the Machiavellan antagonist of Swordspoint is, as well as being an eyepatch-wearing villain, the one confirmed exclusive heterosexual in the book. Which I suppose is a little heavy-handed of Kushner, but still a nice change from, and a pretty clever response to, the long and tiresome tradition of the bad guy who is gay or bisexual just because it adds a point or two to their Evil Quotient.
7 And this, too, is a way in which it helped break ground to make way for a lot of the fantasy that’s on the shelves today. But the reverse of this coin is that, as we also discussed in the group, it can be hard to appreciate all of what Swordpoint is doing unless you have a solid grounding in the genre it’s responding to. Whatever else it is, this is a deeply reactionary book, though it’s having so much fun at what it does that this can be easy to overlook.