It is only now that I have put this book down and thought about it for a couple of days that I’ve realised Richard St Vier is not a good person. An incredible swordsman, yes, but nice? Not on your life.
I’m trying to work out why I didn’t really see it while I was reading (there was definitely a moment when I should have seen it). His quiet, mostly calm, don’t-want-to-be-bothered-by-people ways lulled me into a feeling of kinship; his protectiveness for his lover Alec, the fact that he doesn’t like to drink, his dedication to his art and the grace and energy with which he fights, his signature fatal strike to the heart (clean, definite, minimal mess), all put me firmly on his side (because who doesn’t love a quiet badass?). Instead, I should have thought more about what it takes to be a swordsman for hire, what it takes to go into fight after fight knowing that it could be your last. Knowing that you’re only the best until you’re dead.
Anyway, starting at the beginning…
Richard St Vier is the master swordsman in the City. His name is known to all, from the slums of Riverside to the gardens and ballrooms of the Hill. He has a strict code of conduct when it comes to taking jobs, which is equally well known. He is a man who keeps things simple in a story that knows the world is complicated.
The City itself is wonderful, both as a physical set for the action and as a political construct. Physically, it is a place of layers. I love that Riverside was once the noble quarter, but that as fashions have moved on (a carriage wouldn’t fit down such narrow streets) its beautiful buildings have been put to new uses, so that once grand residences are now divided up into small apartments, shops, bars and the like. Politically, it’s a place of clear class divisions – Riverside and the Hill only making that divide more concrete – that is run by a Council of Lords taken from the ranks of the nobility, and policed by a City Watch, but only so far: the criminal fraternity of Riverside must fend for itself. It’s a world entire, that runs along strict rules of honour (both the nobility on the Hill and the residents of Riverside have their own codes of honour), courtesy and perceived justice.
As far as I can talk about the plot without giving anything away, I enjoyed the ever-increasing complications as Richard and Alec get drawn into a power struggle going on at the highest level. There is something delightful (when it’s written as beautifully as it is here) about watching characters getting sucked into dreadful situations and reaching a point where neither you nor they can see a way out. Obviously, I’m saying this with hindsight. At the time I was positively gnawing my fingertips off because Ferris is bad and must not win, and Richard and Alec are good (I had not yet reflected upon their characters at this stage) and must have a happy ending.
Which brings me to Alec. Alec is a mystery. He has an accent that places him in the nobility, but he lives in Riverside with Richard, gambling (badly) and picking fights. He’s bitchy, self-destructive and mercurial. His relationship with Richard had me fascinated throughout the book because while we witness some vulnerable moments between the two, some funny ones and some passionate ones, there is still an element of the unknowable about them. I spent all of the time in their company desperately curious as to whether they’d end up together or apart. Before writing this up I had a quick look online to see what other people had to say about Swordspoint (not wanting to repeat what’s already been said) and I was surprised by how often a dislike for Alec was expressed. I mean, I’ll happily agree that he’s really not all that nice (he and Richard are the perfect couple in that respect – and, sorry, but all the hearts), but he’s funny and unpredictable, and there’s a damage underneath it all that surely deserves some sympathy? (He likes kittens, for goodness’ sake! He can’t be all bad. Compared to Richard he’s an angel. …Seriously, how did I not see it?!).
Kushner’s prose is just beautiful too. (Ah-ha! I blame her beautiful prose!). Her writing is precise, and she communicates a lot with very few words. I have only read one short story by her before this (“The Threefold World” – my notes for which read only “simply told but B.E.A.U.tiful”), but Swordspoint has left me wanting more of her writing. And certainly more of her dialogue! I lovelovelove all the catty back-and-forth and veiled insults, and the double entendres (looking at you, Lord Horn *shakes head*), that had me cackling my way through these pages. So. Much. Fun.
One other thing only sank in for me after I’d finished reading. While the male characters in this world can find love wherever their inclination lies, there are no f/f relationships shown in Swordspoint. I see that, with such a tight focus, the story could perhaps not accommodate a fully-fledged f/f romance, but I’d still have liked to see the suggestion that it was as much a norm as m/m ones. However, women don’t appear to be in any stronger a position in the City than they have been historically in our world and inheritance still appears to be patrilineal, with a wife required to provide an heir irrespective of personal feeling (poor Bertram and Olivia). The duchess of Tremontaine is the only powerful female character in the book, and while she appears to hold political power in her own right as a duchess, I can’t help but notice that the Council of Lords is an all-male group. So, I guess, if a woman’s power is negligible so too are her feelings.
All this means is that I was happy to read the first of the three additional short stories in my edition. In “The Swordsman Whose Name Was Not Death” Kushner addresses the question ‘but what about the girls?’ intriguingly, and I was sorry it ended so soon. Knowing that the next Riverside book The Privilege of the Sword continues in the same vein makes me very eager to get my hands on it as soon as I can.
The second short story “Red-Cloak” was Kushner’s very first story about Richard and Alec. It has the merest hint of the supernatural to it and would have intrigued me if it had been the first thing I read about Kushner’s “mad, bad boys”. A nice addition.
And the third story “The Death of the Duke” is a poignant choice as the last word. We meet an older Alec and … and I really can’t say more. It’s a melancholy story and really quite beautiful, and I maybe choked up just a little, but you can’t prove a thing.