Swordspoint is an enjoyable book, if you enjoy the sorts of books where people scheme at garden parties. It’s fantasy in name only: set in an imagined world, but without magic or mythological beasts or supernatural elements of any sort. There’s a bit of dueling, but the crux of the plot depends on political intrigue.
This is a very short book (under 300 pages if you don’t count the bonus short stories, which weren’t included in my copy) revolving around a professional duelist, Richard St Vier, and his unbalanced lover Alec. It’s one of those books that gets pegged as “LGBT fantasy” because everyone is bi and this seems to be normal. (I say “everyone,” but I mean “all the men.” Although written by a queer woman, the sexuality in this book is almost exclusively male; for the few female characters, sex seems to be only about manipulation or childbearing. Kushner does remedy this lack in the sequel, The Privilege of the Sword.) Defining this book by sexuality isn’t entirely off-base--sexual attraction and relationships drive much of the plot--but on the other hand, there’s little actual sex and it’s tastefully handled.
Swordspoint begins by throwing the reader into the midst of the world and its intrigue with almost no explanation, making readers pay attention rather than talking down to them. It’s clever, and well-written, and the society is believable if not particularly original. The nobility’s social interactions are as complex and rule-driven as in a period piece. The plot moves briskly and actually wraps up in a satisfying way despite its brief page count; although Kushner eventually wrote sequels, they’re set many years later and are independent of this book, which reads as a standalone.
The characters are a sticking point for me, though. We primarily see through the eyes of Richard and a playboy nobleman, Michael Godwin--but it’s telling that few reviewers list Michael as a main character despite his prominence, because he’s not very interesting and his role in the plot doesn’t require nearly the page time he gets. Toward the end he disappears altogether, rendering his inclusion even more unnecessary. Richard and Alec are more colorful, but not quite believable. Richard comes across as stoic and unemotional, and it’s unclear whether we’re supposed to view him as honorable or sociopathic--but rather than being interesting, this ambiguity just makes him feel underdeveloped. To boot, he has almost no backstory, and Alec precious little; we don’t even find out how this unlikely pair ever got together. While their exploits and interactions are interesting enough, then, these characters are too distant for me to care for them much.
In the end, this book was fun, clever and a quick read. But I prefer The Privilege of the Sword, if only for having a more engaging and relatable protagonist.