1987’s Swordspoint is the first novel in Ellen Kushner’s secondary-universe melodrama-of-manners Riverside series.
Richard St. Vier ventures out of disreputable Riverside into the fashionable Hill to kill … but only when he has a contract. The aristocrats who call the Hill home have a taste for lethal arguments over points of honour. When they do not feel up to the task of gentlemanly murder, they employ professional duelists like St. Vier to fight in their stead. Everyone wins! Except for the losers, who are too dead to care.
Like the rest of the criminals, prostitutes, street urchins, pickpockets, pimps, and other riffraff who call Riverside home, St. Vier doesn’t bother with the squabbles and politics of the nobility, save as they create job opportunities. St. Vier appears to care for just two things: maintaining the lethal skills on which his livelihood depends … and a former student named Alec.
This is not quite correct: St. Vier also cares passionately that the jobs he accepts meet his lofty standards. As his body count rises, so too do his standards. This is quite frustrating for formerly handsome Lord Horn, whose advances were recently spurned by exceptionally attractive young Lord Michael Godwin. Rejection is an insult that demands blood in payment. The best man for the job is manifestly St. Vier — but Horn bungles the task of hiring St. Vier as badly as he did seducing Godwin.
If Horn were the kind of man who could graciously accept he cannot have everything he wants, he would not have tried to engage St. Vier in the first place. Rejection means only that he must find some way to compel obedience from aloof St. Vier. For this he turns to Alec. Alec is no duelist but he is easily kidnapped. With Alec in Horn’s possession, St. Vier will have no choice but to do as Horn bids.
And once St. Vier completes his repugnant task, there will be further consequences.
Note how gracefully I avoid the question of whether or not this is fantasy.
When the aristocracy isn’t murdering or fucking each other, they’re engaged in convoluted political maneuvering. Strike that. The three activities are in no way nicely partitioned from each other. I’ve left out a lot of political maneuvering to keep the review word-count down, but it’s there. If you like House-of-Cards-style ruthless stratagems and you miss Ian Richardson’s Urquhart, you might enjoy this novel. Not that there aren’t many other reasons to enjoy it.
I was recently reminded that this book existed and that a review would be appreciated. I then made a series of astonishing discoveries. Upon starting what I guessed would be a re-reading, I discovered that I had no memory whatsoever of reading it (despite owning a copy). I checked in my old reviews folder and found that I had read and reviewed The Privilege of the Sword, the third book in the series (found in an SFBC omnibus). Generally speaking, when the SFBC had me read one book in a series, they had me read all of them. Perhaps they still had first reader reports from the original publication Swordspointand The Fall of the Kings? Did I read them? Didn’t I? If I read them, where is my review?
Perhaps most astonishing discovery of all, a blurb of ebullient praise from Orson Scott Card for a book in which virtually no noteworthy character is straight.
Speaking of sex, gender, orientation, and all that: the general rule of thumb is that among the upper classes, nobody cares about the gender of the people with whom one has fashionably scandalous affairs as long as each participant remembers to find time for their duty to perpetuate their bloodlines. Amongst the lower classes — among many inventions missing from this setting is a middle class — nobody cares, period.
Kushner’s prose is exquisite. Her characters, less so. The aristocracy is a nest of self-serving, well-dressed vipers. St. Vier is a confident, competent, implacable killer; his boyfriend Alec is a nihilistic, angry young drug user who enjoys watching St. Vier kill people1. The desperate poor, at least, have the excuse they’re doing what they have to do to stave off starvation.
Still, the novel is so nicely done that one hardly minds such minor personal flaws in the characters.
Swordspoint is available here (Amazon US), here (Amazon Canada), here (Amazon UK), here (Barnes & Noble), here (Book Depository) and here (Chapters-Indigo). A limited edition hardcover of Ellen Kushner’s novel is available here.
1: Despite his many deep-seated character flaws, a follow-up story reveals that Alec does remain with St. Vier for the rest of St. Vier’s life.