When there’s a blurb by one of your favourite authors on the front of a book , then it’s hard not to grab that book off the shelf. It’s not often that I’m swayed by this device–but when the recommendation is by George R R Martin, I’m going to read it. I’d heard of this book for a long while, but for some reason until I saw the recommendation, I had hesitated buying it. I think it’s because I haven’t read much fantasy–in comparison to other genres–and I expected it to be like The Sword of Shannara or The Sword of Truth novels.
Happily, for me, it wasn’t.
Don’t be put off by the cover, either.
It’s hard to explain the depth of this book. If you’ve read “Wicked Gentlemen” by Ginn Hale then you’ll understand a little. Swordspoint plunges you immediately into a world that is semi-familiar, (rather like a prettier and better dressed London or Paris in the 17th century) but is entirely its own in terms of politics, geography and history, and it does that so exquisitely that you hardly notice you are walking the streets of whole new experience. It starts with an ending – of a swordfight, and a life– beautifully described–in a snowstorm. And like the snowstorm, the facts of the fight are blurred as the swordsman runs off, leaving death behind him in an ornamental garden.
It’s set in an unnamed city; the rich people live on The Hill, and the poor, the criminal, the dangerous, the mad–live in Riverside; an island in the river where not even the Watchmen dare go. And it is here where Richard St. Vier, the swordsman from the fight, returns to, and it’s here where he lives with his “gentleman” as he quaintly calls him, the darkly sardonic and bloodthirsty Alec.
For starters there’s no concept of “gay” in the book. To take a male lover might be considered a little decadent (on the Hill, at least) but hardly raises an eyebrow. In Riverside, people are too busy staying alive to care one way or the other; the morality or otherwise is not an issue in either place. However, on the Hill, as in any privileged society, even if one maintains a male lover, it doesn’t exclude one’s duty to marriage and heirs. Several of the characters prefer male company.
Richard is “the” up and coming swordsman in the city. This is a society that settles its disputes by tradition, but the rich have stopped fighting for themselves and putting themselves at risk. If they fall out with a neighbour they pay a swordsman to fight for them–and the richer they are, the better man they can afford. In this way, Richard is little more than an assassin, but one with principles. He doesn’t do playfights–staged entertainments for weddings and the like–and he won’t kill women or children. And he’s the perfect anti-hero, dark and driven, practising with his blades for hours at a time to hone his skills. He’s not the best–yet–but he’s well on the way to becoming so. And the city knows it.
Alec is an enigma, and this mystery hangs around him throughout the book. No-one’s sure who he is, where he’s come from. Richard–and most others around him–thinks he’s a scholar, as his hair and clothing match those of the students, but he doesn’t attend the university. Richard suspects, from his accent, that he might be from The Hill, but he doesn’t ask him. It’s not that he doesn’t care, but you feel with Richard that the present is all that matters. It’s also inconceivable to him that anyone born on The Hill might want to live in Riverside.
The brilliance of the book for me is the counterpoint between Richard and Alec. Richard is almost monkish in his habits, despite the money he earns fighting, and he’s not–again in balance to his profession–bloodthirsty. Alec, who is clearly a little unbalanced, thrives on the death and excitement of Richard’s profession, there’s a real feeling that he gets sexually aroused by blood and fear, and more than once he puts himself in harm’s way, simply to have Richard seek satisfaction for sometimes no more than a casual insult. And Richard does, although you can tell it irritates him to have been pushed into doing this–but he can never back down. It’s a hugely dangerous world, and you are only as good as your last fight. In this way, Alec is Richard’s Achilles Heel.
It is the politics on The Hill that creates the main plot, the rich and their ambitions who draw–disastrously–Richard and Alec into their web, and more than that I won’t spoil it, but believe me, you’ll be holding your breath throughout the entire thing.
It is, to my mind, a groundbreaking book, and people have struggled to pigeon hole it since its publication–way back in 1987. Like all masterpieces–and yes, I’ll go as far as that–it defies pigeonholing. It’s been labelled as a quasi-historical fantasy, and again, like all great books – it has something for everyone. A strong twisty and twisted plot, a cast of unforgettable characters (including the location of Riverside itself, which looms large and flavours everything about the plot) a love-affair to melt, break and mend the hardest heart, and action scenes that stay burned in the mind forever.
Whatever else this book has been labelled as, to my mind it is nothing more or less than a breathtaking gay romance. A gay romance! In 1987! Perhaps because of this, the sex scenes are almost as hidden away as the ones in The Charioteer, but what is on the page is so deliciously erotic its no wonder that there is a enthusiastic fandom for these characters.
There are two other books in this universe, (The Fall of the Kings, and Privilege of the Sword) and while they touch on the lives of Richard and Alec, they do so only lightly. (and deal with more heterosexual matters.) There are several short stories though which do go into more detail, so they are worth finding – a couple are in this edition of the book, and another in the magazine Fantasy & Science Fiction (April/May 2009).
It’s most certainly one of my desert island books, Richard and Alec’s love affair which I shall never recover from and I hope, if you haven’t tried Swordspoint, you’ll give it a try, and I hope you fall in love with it as completely as I did.
Thank you, Jessewave for letting me post this review here, I’m so happy to be able to give my review on a public forum. I’d love to see a film–only I doubt they’d leave the romance in place.