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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:

  • Action Girl: Jessica in The Fall of the Kings, Katherine in The Privilege of the Sword, and most definitely Kaab in the Tremontaine books.
  • All Myths Are True: Toyed with in The Fall of the Kings.
  • The Apprentice: Michael Godwin to Richard at times.
  • 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.
  • Big Beautiful Woman: Tess the Hand in the Tremontaine books is considered extremely sultry and gorgeous by both men and women while being openly described as "fat."
  • Byronic Hero: Both Alec and Richard. (The author described them in the afterword to one edition as "my mad, bad boys.")
  • Butt-Monkey:
  • City of Adventure: The setting (it's never named).
  • City with No Name: Riverside is a district within the city, but the city itself is never named.
  • Comedic Sociopathy
  • Deadpan Snarker: Alec, most of the time.
  • Everyone Is Bi: Not everyone, strictly speaking, but certainly a large majority of the characters.
  • 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.
  • Gambit Pileup: Lord Ferris is clearly on top of the pile, mind you.
    • Well, he thinks he is. But when Diane is the local Magnificent Bastard, don't bet on Lord Ferris.
  • Hitman with a Heart:
  • If It's You, It's Okay: Tess (who appears to be bisexual) and Kaab (who is strictly about the ladies) briefly welcome Vincent into their bed.
  • Jade-Colored Glasses
  • Kill and Replace: The Reveal in Tremontaine - this is what "Diane" - originally the serving maid Louisa - did to the real Diane Roehaven.
  • Land of One City: Noticeably averted.
  • Love Hurts
  • Love Makes You Crazy: Richard and Jessamyn.
  • Love Redeems
  • Lover's Ledge: How Richard dies, years after the main body of the story is over.
  • The Magic Comes Back: The entire theme of Fall of the Kings is to prove that The Magic Was Real.
  • Mayincatec: Kaab's people and culture tend to be 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 Celebrities Were Harmed: The not-Shakespeare play.
  • 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).
  • Offscreen Breakup: Both Alec and Richard between Swordspoint and Privilege and Tess and Kaab between Season Two and Season Three.
  • 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.
  • Rape as Drama: Implied in Swordspoint, and a motivating incident for the main plot in The Privilege of the Sword.
  • Secret Police: The Fall of the Kings features one, headed by the sinister Serpent Chancellor.
  • Title Drop: "All men live at swordspoint." Lampshaded as a character thinks to himself that he feels "an epigraph looming to the surface."
  • Urban Fantasy: All takes place in an unnamed City.
  • Urban Segregation: The nobles live on the hill, the poor in Riverside.
  • You Bastard!: In a world full of bastards, Ferris managed to stand out.

Alternative Title(s): The Fall Of The Kings