Tuesday 12 April 2011

Review: Swordspoint by Ellen Kushner

On the treacherous streets of Riverside, a man lives and dies by the sword. Even the nobles on the Hill turn to duels to settle their disputes. Within this elite, dangerous world, Richard St. Vier is the undisputed master, as skilled as he is ruthless--until a death by the sword is met with outrage instead of awe, and the city discovers that the line between hero and villain can be altered in the blink of an eye.

This book has been on my ‘to read’ list for far longer than it should have been, and I finally picked it up last week to give it the airing it deserves. Unfortunately my feelings about it were not quite as ecstatic as I initially thought they would be. I read the sequel ‘The Privilege of the Sword’ years ago and loved it (I’ve never been particularly good at reading books in the correct order.)and I thought the same would be true of Ellen Kushner’s first novel.

Whilst I loved bits of it, I found the high excitement and intrigue to be interspersed with long periods where very little happens, and the prose is like wading through syrup. Long flowing descriptions that don’t further the plot and make me inadvertently skip passages because I’m so bored. Which really irritated me, because like I said, mixed in with this is a brilliantly written story.

I love the city, the characters, the general ethos of the place. It’s like a more exciting version of Georgian England, with swordsman to settle disputes, parties, political intrigue, and where sexuality doesn’t mean a thing. That’s one of the things I found most interesting about this book was that the characters take male and female lovers left right and centre, and no one bats an eye – it was a really refreshing change – particularly in a book written in 1987 – to see sexuality not even really touched upon as an issue. It was just there, deal with it. The only thing that I was sad about, was that no relationship was even remotely happy. I suppose you could argue that Richard and Alec was partially happy, but it was also so abusive. And I like to have a bit of romance in my books. It was just hard to see why Richard actually liked Alec, other than the fact that he was dangerous.

It also set up a lot of the plots, which are some of the most brilliantly convoluted I’ve seen. The plots are brilliantly entwined, swapping from one person to the next with a speed that is sometimes dizzying. I love how many different players are involved, it helps to keep everything fluid because you’re seeing a constantly shifting shape of events as people take different courses, and the plotting becomes even more ridiculous. However, there are some pieces that are kept from the reader until the final showdown, which offers a last flurry of shocks and surprises in the final act.

The characters were really well drawn and defined, and for the most part completely engaging. I would have liked to have seen more of the Duchess and Lady Halliday, because we have a wonderful set up within the first few chapters that involves a bit more of the Hill than is then used in the rest of the book, and I thought it was shame that this set up wasn’t utilised fully.
Richard comes across as a little flat sometimes, but for the most part I found him engaging enough to want to keep reading. My favourite (other than the Duchess) was always going to be Alec – I have a thing for bad boys. And his weirdly fluctuating temper puts him firmly into the bad boy category.
He’ll fly from loving and touching to trying to hurt in a heart beat, and you never quite know what he might do or where he’s going next. The secrets of his past were fairly obvious, which was a shame as I would have liked a bit more mystery, particularly given how long it took to reveal what we’d already worked out.

My biggest complaint is the prose, which at times is staggeringly beautiful – the final passage of the book is a perfect example of this – but can then flip and become incredibly over wordy and boring. I ended up skimming whole passages because they weren’t imparting anything new, and they were slowing the plot down and making me just want to put the book down and give up – which was a huge shame because once you get through them, the book is brilliant. The first half is pure genius, and then I'm not sure what happened, but the action tapered off and it become a slower read with more random passages. The action picks up again a bit later, but around two thirds through the book is where I became unstuck and just wasn't as interested in the story.

It will probably be a while before I come back to ‘Swordspoint’ but I’ve already got the sequels lined up to read, because for all my complaints, it is a brilliant book, and engaging world, and I really want to immerse myself further in it and find out more.

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