by Ellen Kushner, fantasy (2003, 1987 reissue)
Spectra, $6.99, ISBN 0-553-58549-5
Long before Stuart Alan Jones, the mad, bad, and dangerous to know gay Romeo in the UK Queer As Folk (a formula replicated very poorly by their US counterpart) first showed the world how cool morally ambiguous hedonistic heroes can be, there is the psychosexual drama of Swordspoint, a cult classic of antiheroic melodrama - a "mannerpunk classic" as I've heard it described by fans of this book. Richard St Ives is a merciless assassin, his lover Alec is suicidal and borderline insane, and they live in the town of Riverside, sort of like the 19th century seedy London dockside came life.
(Yes, the main male characters are sleeping together. But there's no explicit homosexual love scenes here though, in case you're wondering. Not that I worry too much about these things. I'm actually disappointed that I don't get to read about hot-hot-hot man-man love between the two guys here.)
How do I describe this fabulous book? I don't think there's anything I can say here that can explain the powerful feeling I get when I read this book. It's like realizing that I'm in for the ride of my life and I cannot wait for it to start. Or maybe it's like standing at the top of the highest peak in the world and feeling all the exhilaration I can feel at feeling, being so high. It's my realizing how grand - how freaking amazing - a good book can make me feel. I don't know, I can't describe it. I just know that I first read this book in 1987 and fifteen years later, the book still feels only a little dated and still riveting and seductive on my senses.
Anyway, a bit about this little corner of Ms Kushner's fantasy world. There is the Riverside where the riff-raffs and low-lives live. Then across the bridge is the Hill, where the aristocrats and the wealthy citizens live. The population of these two places rarely mingle openly. But it is a common practice for the aristocrats of the Hill to hire the assassins from the Riverside to commit treachery and mayhem.
The story begins with our hired assassin Richard St Vier gracefully fleeing the Hill where he has just committed a murder. Actually, he doesn't technically commit a murder, but what the heck, somebody died, and there will be repercussions. This is because Richard is hired to kill an important nobleman, and several key players vying for more power in their roles take this opportunity to set a chain of events that will come back to bite poor unwitting pawn Richard in his butt.
Among the players in the Hill is the lusty yet cunning Duchess Diane Tremontaine who plays off her lovers and protégés like a skilled chess player even as they all assume that she is just a sweet, naive widow. There is also Michael Godwin, a young bumbling nobleman who in his infatuation with the Duchess will become her unwitting pawn. Diane's lover Ferris is appropriately Machiavellian in his attempts to be the new Dragon Chancellor, while poor Lord Horn just wants Michael Godwin in his bed but ends up getting screwed by everybody using his hapless lust to his or her advantage.
In Riverside, there's Richard. Deeply amoral and disturbingly nonchalant about violence, he is so emotionally detached that he is almost inhuman at times. Then there is the mysterious Alec, a scholar from the University up the Hill who came to Riverside looking for death. He found Richard, and Richard found this man's suicidal urges charming enough to take the man under his wing and later in his bed. In a way, they are such a beautiful couple - the killer and the suicidal nutcase. A match made in heaven, really.
As the Hill folks go about playing their games, Richard and Alec will be pulled right into the mess. Both men have secrets they keep from each other. This will culminate in Richard and Alec both performing startlingly heroic deeds for each other.
There is a delicious contradiction between Ellen Kushner's lush, elegant prose and the merciless brutality of her characters. The author's style is actually reminiscent of the best of Judith Ivory when it comes to characterization and atmosphere. At the same time, Richard and Alec don't push at the envelopes when it comes to the term "moral ambiguity", they rip it apart and dance on the pieces. But at the same time, Richard is - dare I say it? Sexy as Hugh Jackman under my Christmas tree wearing nothing but a red bow tie around his, er, neck. Seriously, he is! I mean, a merciless killer who brutally mutilates the man who kidnapped and tortured poor Alec before running home to make tormented love to Alec (all the while covered with blood) - how can this not be sexy? (No, you men in white coats, you are not coming in to get me!) Likewise, Alec's cold and cruel humor is just what Richard needs to get out of his emotionless funk and feel a little. Alec arouses his protective instincts, and Richard's slow loss of control over his feelings is one of the things that make their relationship so compelling. Richard's only anchor in his life is his swordsman codex - he will live and he will die by swordspoint - and following how Alec makes his simple black-and-white principles turn topsy-turvy is fun.
Not that Alec comes off in any way unscathed from this dysfunctional relationship. In a way, he is out of his league, as he is just a spoiled, pampered young brat who believed that he was the center of the world and then couldn't cope when he finally realized otherwise. But with Richard, he grew up, although not in an entirely positive way. It is also a somewhat darkly funny kind of irony that Alec also learns the full meaning of responsibility and even nobility from having to clean up the mess his actions caused Richard to do.
The intrigue and romantic plays of this story are actually nothing new, but it is the author's ability to evoke the atmosphere and make the characters come so alive to me that make this book a fabulous read. From small, quaint scenes like Richard's embarrassment at having to present his birthday gift for Alec - why did he buy that silly thing for that man ohjusttakeitandshutupAlec - to Alec's loss of temper when he realizes that Richard doesn't care about living or dying, everything is just so romantic in the most twisted sense of the word. Sometimes I don't know if Richard and Alec will kill each other or they will even last the next week, much less the next year, but by the last page, it really doesn't matter. These two people are cracked and damaged beyond any redemption, but their finding love and solace with each other, even if it will last only a brief moment? When these people don't care about their own safety but they will do anything to make sure the other person is safe? When they cannot help showing the real them to each other? That is romantic. That is passion. And it's glorious.
Swordspoint takes a cast of cruel, self-absorbed, murderous sociopaths and psychopaths and turns them into the most glorious and riveting characters to remember. In the case of Alec and Richard, two deranged bastards, Ms Kushner turns them into antiheroes to cheer and commemorate. How did that happen?
If you want stories featuring antiheroes that push at the very limits in a darkly funny, almost Georgette-Heyerish setting (now that's a book, I tell you!), hey, do give this book a try. Or buy this for your annoying friend who keeps insisting that heroes and heroines should be super virtuous and watch him or her go into a fit.
Anyway, now I'm waiting for Amazon to drop me the sequel, The Fall Of The Kings, on my doorstep. Can they hurry up, damn it? I waited two months for it to show up in Singapore - no luck - and I want to see how Alec's son fares in this crazy, delightful world of anti-moralistic antiheroes. Mannerpunks, Ellen Kushner owns all of you.
This book at Amazon.com
This book at Amazon UK
Search for more reviews of works by this author: