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Literature / Swordspoint

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Swordspoint is a cult classic fantasy of manners (with elements of urban fantasy and heroic fantasy) written by Ellen Kushner in 1987. Later on, it saw two sequels: The Fall of the Kings (which was co-written with Delia Sherman) and The Privilege of the Sword. All three were critically acclaimed and are often held up as examples of a peculiar type of novel, with the basic setting of high fantasy but none (until The Fall of the Kings) of the magic.

In Riverside, disputes are traditionally settled by swordsmen: hired mercenaries who battle one another on behalf of wealthy noblemen (or anyone with the ability to pay them). From the honor of a lady to whether or not a poet is terrible, the winning swordsman's stroke is considered the final say. But the reputation of swordsmen is in decline, with more and more matters being settled in court, while the swordsmen themselves become both romanticized and held in contempt.

Swordspoint tells the story of Richard St. Vier, the best damn swordsman in Riverside, and Alec, a university student (possibly from the Hill) who lives with him. When Richard kills two men in a duel in an aristocrat's garden, he finds himself embroiled in a rather unpleasant business. There are few he can turn to for help (which he likely wouldn't do anyway) because, every day, swordsmen become less and less respectable.

The Privilege of the Sword, set a generation after Swordspoint, tells the story of Katherine, a young noblewoman living in genteel poverty who is suddenly summoned to the city by her uncle, the Mad Duke. Katherine hopes that the summons means an upgrade in her marriage prospects, only to learn, to her horror, that the Mad Duke wants to dress her as a boy and train her to be a swordsman.

The Fall of the Kings is set a generation (give or take) after The Privilege of the Sword.

Tremontaine is the most recent addition, currently published by Serial Box. It's a prequel taking place roughly a generation before Swordspoint with a young Diane Tremontaine as one of the main cast embroiled in a steamy intrigue involving mathematics and chocolate.

This book contains examples of:

  • The Baroness: Diane, who maintains an air of feminine helplessness while actually controlling almost everything behind the scenes. And she isn't too dainty to resort to cold-blooded murder if someone causes her too much trouble.
  • Byronic Hero: Both Alec and Richard. (The author described them in the afterword to one edition as "my mad, bad boys.")
  • Faking the Dead: Vincent is forced to retire from the swordsman business after he loses his arm. In part for his own safety, and in part to save face, Tess and Kaab convince Riverside that he actually died from the amputation. An unusual case of this, since anyone who's read Swordspoint knows that he clearly comes back and reestablishes himself at some point in the next fifteen years.
  • Glorious Death: A recurring theme is the way each swordsman wants to die in battle with another swordsman, proving that they are a true swordsman. Applethorpe manages to die by St. Vier's sword, and he is happy with that.
  • Honorable Warrior's Death: The book makes a repeated point that true swordsmen die in combat at an early age and if they live long enough to die another way, it proves that they're shameful not proper swordsmen. Applethorpe manages to die by taking a challenge from Michael and is immensely pleased to finally die properly.
  • Kill and Replace: The Reveal in Tremontaine - this is what "Diane" - originally the serving maid Louisa - did to the real Diane Roehaven.
  • The Magic Comes Back: The driving plot of The Fall of the Kings is an attempt to return the practice of real magic to society, and incidentally restore the monarchy (which was historically reliant upon it). It fails, mostly.
  • Mayincatec: Kaab's people and culture tend to come across as a fictionalized version of South America. Unlike most representations, it's plain that they're as civilized (if not more so) than the nobles of the City, and they're very powerful political players. Their grasp of mathematics and navigation are actually a major plot point of Tremontaine, Season One.
  • No Communities Were Harmed: Riverside has a fair amount in common with the Southwark of Shakespeare's day (which was and is on the banks of the River Thames).
  • Oh, Crap!: An extremely understated one at the end of The Fall of the Kings for Nicholas Galing, after the Serpent Chancellor Lord Arlen makes it clear that despite Nicholas' loyal service, Arlen is going to let him get tried and convicted for murder purely out of political convenience.
  • Professional Killer: Hired swordsmen are a commodity in the city, and all the most respectable people have one on hire. They're held to a very formal code of conduct and don't kill unless they're ordered to do so—and when they are, it's their patrons, rather than the swordsmen themselves, that can be held criminally responsible.
  • Religion is Magic: The magic of the wizards in The Fall of the Kings, while not explicitly incorporating any worshipped deities, is nonetheless closely connected to fertility, harvest cycles, hunting, and the natural world in a way very reminiscent of pre-Christian paganism, and is heavily based on public rituals reinforcing the King's position as an avatar/icon of the land.
  • Title Drop: "All men live at swordspoint." Lampshaded as a character thinks to himself that he feels "an epigraph looming to the surface."
    • Basil St. Cloud's mentor in History at the University, Dr. Tortua, is most well known for his book Hubris and the Fall of the Kings.

Alternative Title(s): The Fall Of The Kings