Swordspoint is a particularly good example of the challenges of book selling in a world of genre focus and the challenges of making your work known. Swordspoint has been called a “melodrama of manners”, a fantasy, a high romance and a fairy tale for grown ups. To me, it seems like an alternate world history novel about the political and sexual intrigues of court. Obviously that’s not a genre. One distinguishing feature of the novel, and possibly the fantasy element, is that nearly all of the men are bisexual; none of the women are depicted this way. Had this novel been described to me this way, I probably wouldn’t have bought it. I’m not particularly interested in the intrigues of courts; I’m about as interested in the politics of the lords as Richard St Vier, the swordsman protagonist of the novel. I’m also not interested in novels where sex plays a primary role; I’m even less interested in one where switching partners and partner’s sex is the norm. I tend to avoid looking at sex as a spectator sport; it’s best as a participatory one within the context of marriage. That’s not to say this isn’t a well written book. I’m also not interested in horror and don’t read good writers like Stephen King (with the exception of the brilliant Gunslinger series). So here we come to a dilemma; on one hand, genre can help guide us to works we’ll typically appreciate (or avoid those we typically don’t). On the other hand, there are many books, this one included, which cannot be easily classified or may even be mislabeled. We now have finer granularity with new genres and sub-genres, such as new-adult fiction, urban fantasy, dark fantasy and techno-thriller. In some cases, that helps and in some cases, this pigeonholing seems to exacerbate the problem. Obviously, in a number of cases, there are books in multiple genres and some that really don’t fit neatly into a cubby-hole. We also have publishers reclassify a book to whatever genre that’s hot. Debate whether genre labeling is helpful or not for the reader, for the writer and for the booksellers is nothing new.
My two cents, from a reader’s perspective, on the genre-wars is that I think genre labels can be helpful if used as a high-level initial filter (for me this would filter out things like horror, erotica and harlequin romances). After that, it’s up to me. Swordspoint is a great case in point (yup, I did that); it’s loved by writers I love such as Neil Gaiman, George R. R. Martin and Orson Scott Card. So I got it; I should have taken a bit of time to dig a little deeper past a couple of labels. I’m culpable for buying a novel outside of what I prefer, not the labels. I think that too much granularity is problematic because books typically don’t fit that neatly and it makes us lazy readers.
Moving past the classifying of Swordspoint, how is it as a book? Ms. Kushner can write; I supply for evidence the introduction:
SNOW WAS FALLING ON RIVERSIDE, GREAT WHITE feather-puffs that veiled the cracks in the façades of its ruined houses; slowly softening the harsh contours of jagged roof and fallen beam. Eaves were rounded with snow, overlapping, embracing, sliding into each other, capping houses all clustered together like a fairy-tale village. Little slopes of snow nestled in the slats of shutters still cozily latched against the night. It dusted the tops of fantastical chimneys that spiraled up from frosted roofs, and it formed white peaks in the ridges of the old coats of arms carved above the doorways. Only here and there a window, its glass long shattered, gaped like a black mouth with broken teeth, sucking snow into its maw.
Let the fairy tale begin on a winter’s morning, then, with one drop of blood new-fallen on the ivory snow: a drop as bright as a clear-cut ruby, red as the single spot of claret on the lace cuff. And it therefore follows that evil lurks behind each broken window, scheming malice and enchantment; while behind the latched shutters the good are sleeping their just sleeps at this early hour in Riverside. Soon they will arise to go about their business ; and one, maybe, will be as lovely as the day, armed, as are the good, for a predestined triumph.
Kushner, Ellen (2007-12-18). Swordspoint (Riverside) (pp. 1-2). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Her descriptions, characters, pacing (for a book on court intrigues) and world creation are spot on. It is a testament to her writing that I became invested in what happened to Richard. Her descriptions present the world of Riverside in such a way that I feel as though I’ve furtively traveled through the streets or wandered up the Hill. It’s also described in such a way, that I wouldn’t like to visit, let alone live there. The characters who peopled her story were often complex and clever. Ironically, the two people who seemed to have the best character were killers: Richard St Vier and Vincent Applethorpe (a former swordsman who ran a fencing school). There were a number of purposely unlikable characters, such as Lord Horn. There were some characters who I didn’t particularly care for, such as Alec, who I think I was supposed to appreciate more. On the whole, the lords (and ladies) were a rotten, self-absorbed lot; the relatively good ones received little “page time” such as Lord Halliday and Lord Arlen. Some, such as Ferris and Godwin were interesting but still self-absorbed. The Riverside townspeople were barely getting by and, while providing color, had relatively little depth to them. So while I can, from the sidelines, admire the prowess of Lord Ferris and hold in awe the machinations of Duchess Tremontaine, there were very few characters that I liked as people.
All of this simply confirms that this is well-done but not my cup of tea. It is a well built world I don’t care for peopled with complex characters that I mostly don’t like and has as its main focus clever politicking and sexual intrigue amongst the lords of the city which I don’t prefer as a focus. If you like this stuff (and the bisexual element doesn’t bother you), then you’ll like Ms. Kushner’s book.
I had an opportunity to listen to much of the audiobook (I went between the Kindle and Audible versions using Whispersync for Voice). Overall, it’s nicely done. It is not quite a full audio play but it is a multi-cast reading with sound effects. While Ms. Kushner has solid narration skills developed doing radio with WGBH (Boston), the tone in her voice is not my favorite. She does a nice job of narration; this is simply personal preference.
So, this is a well executed book whose content really isn’t for me; I won’t be continuing the series.