I invite you to look at this terrible cover, which graces Gollancz’s 2016 edition of Ellen Kushner’s 1987 novel Swordspoint. What does this cover say to you? To me, it says “possibly YA sword-and-sorcery novel in a cod-medieval secondary world, all characters white and straight and probably male”. The use of the adjective “swashbuckling” on the cover copy does not help.
Reader, the cover could not be more wrong. Swordspoint is in fact a fantasy of manners set in a Regency-adjacent alternate world in which the nobility settle scores using proxy duels through highly skilled swordfighters. Richard St Vier is one such fighter, commonly recognised as the best in the city; his profession gives him a certain rakish honour, while simultaneously relegating him to the lower ranks of society. Almost inevitably, he becomes embroiled in the political manoeuvrings of the upper classes, caught between the highly codified laws of the swordsman and his need to protect his lover Alec from both the seedy residents of Riverside and the vengeful nobility who live upon the Hill.
Did I mention everyone is queer?
(By “everyone” I mean “all the men” and by “queer” I mean “some flavour of bi but they all seem to love their boyfriends more than their wives”, but STILL, this is a work of fantasy published in 1987, I am amazed there are any LGBT+ characters at all.)
Although the setting is, as I’ve said, recognisably Regency-coded (I think it’s the tension between romance and respectability that does it – it’s a tension we see in lots of Jane Austen’s novels, for instance), it’s one of those rare stories that feels almost ahistorical, a thing that has come from nowhere. I’d put Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy and M. John Harrison’s Viriconium sequence in the same category: works that are utterly sui generis, that don’t seem to fit into any observable trend. I mean: who was even writing intricate alt-historical social novels with significant LGBT content in the 1980s?
(I’ll admit that I’m not particularly up on 1980s SFF writing, so please let me know if I’m off-base here!)
I think part of what contributes to this sense of temporal dislocation is that this isn’t even really a Regency novel; parts of it are set in the city’s seedy underbelly, where cutthroats and pickpockets lurk around every corner and the laws of polite society are turned upside down. The violence that runs rampant in Riverside, the violence by which Richard sustains his position in Riverside society, gives the lie to those laws; for it is that very violence that underpins the social hierarchy of the Hill, via the proxies of the swordsmen. When that violence spills out beyond the bounds set by the carefully codified laws of engagement by which the nobility live, we see the inherent instability on which their social and political power is founded. This isn’t typically how Regency romances work – by its very nature romance tends to be consolatory and small-c conservative, preserving the fabric of society rather than undermining it. What makes Kushner’s destabilisation of Regency romance structures so unusually powerful (as compared to something like Zen Cho’s Sorcerer to the Crown, which is fun and important but doesn’t exert the same kind of murky hold on my imagination) is her naturalistic depiction of the kind of man Richard is: he’s not romanticised at all, and although he’s sympathetic in some ways (most notably in his devotion to Alec) he is ultimately still a person who’s willing to torture another human being. Kushner, in other words, goes there. Her characters are anything but swashbuckling, with all of the sanitised heroism that implies.
There is a sequel to Swordspoint, The Privilege of the Sword, but since it was published nearly twenty years after the original I’m not sure I want to read it. In my experience worlds returned to decades after the fact tend to lose their lustre; and I wouldn’t want anything to tarnish my memory of Swordspoint‘s hypnotic, menacing power.