Swordspoint by Ellen Kushner
Short Review: Character-driven sweeping tale of court intrigue, thieves, and swordsmen read beautifully by many voices and accompanied by music and sound effects. Witty and funny, a great tale.
Long Review: For those of us well read in the Fantasy genre, this is one of those books that many people expect you to have read. But I hadn’t, until about two weeks of my spare time were swallowed whole by this story.
Richard St Vier is the best swordsman. He lives in Riverside, the “other side of the tracks” which in this story is the “other side of the bridge”. Riverside is the home to thieves, swordsman, and prostitutes. They have their own rules – and those not from Riverside rarely dare to cross within its borders. Meanwhile, up on the hill across the bridge, is the nice side of town – home to the rich and the people in charge.
Much of this story is what I think of as court intrigue – people in power manipulating things behind the scenes to get more power or regain power. As is often the case, those with power use everything, and everyone, at their disposal to shift things to their liking. There are lots of beautiful parties and back room negotiations. Those in Riverside are frequently entangled in the intrigue from across the bridge and it is in midst of these entanglements that we find much of the story. In Swordspoint, duels settle disputes — and when you aren’t a swordsman yourself, then you need someone to fight in your stead. Someone like Richard St Vier, if you are very lucky.
There are a lot of characters to follow. I will admit to sometimes losing track of some of the names for a bit, but anyone important enough to demand attention would soon turn up again and I shortly got everyone sorted out. I wonder if that would have been easier had I been seeing the names rather than hearing them, but the different voices of the audiobook also helped me differentiate the characters as well – so it might not have made a difference after all.
I will admit to having thought about one of my father’s adages about stories a few times during this book: “Who is there to root for?”. Such is the way of things when so many of the characters that get a lot of ‘screen time’ are scheming against each other. It takes a while to sort out everyone’s agendas (that is part of the fun!). But it didn’t take long before I found people to root for and care about. In fact, even when I didn’t like what they were doing, I was often captivated by their machinations. Swordspoint tells quite the tale. It is one of those stories in which you can lose yourself for a while.
On top of being a great story, you might also be considering listening to Swordspoint because of its connection to the new serial story Tremontaine, available in eBook and audio installments. Tremontaine is a prequel to Swordspoint. If that leaves you uncertain about which story to start with, you might want to read the tips from the author on what order to read them.
One last tidbit about the story — in the world of Swordspoint, romantic attachments are quite varied and just as likely to be between those of the same sex as those of the opposite sex. That this is just how things are is so rare as to be a bit of a revelation. We see from the very start that Richard St Vier lives with his lover Alec in Riverside… and the story just barrels onward. No excuses, no hedging – the story tells us how each pair of people relates to one another as we go along. I loved that.
I am more accustomed to listening to more traditional audiobooks which feature a single reader from end to end. This audiobook is very different. It is halfway between a full-cast audiobook and a radio play. Lots of different voices (including a fair amount by the author), intervals of music, and even some sound effects. Click on the second Soundcloud clip below for a sample. It took some getting used to, but overall I enjoyed it. You can also learn more about the creation of the audiobook as an ‘Illumniated audiobook”. The readers were very expressive – and I never found myself confused about who was speaking. Honestly, going back to a ‘regular’ audiobook after Swordspoint took a bit of adjustment. Where was my music? My sound effects?
Introduction by Neil Gaiman: