Details: (c) 1987 Ellen Kushner; Pub Tor 1989; ISBN 0-812-53644-4
Verdict: Swordspoint is both entertaining and thought-provoking
Reasons for reading it: I picked it up because I'd vaguely come across ellen_kushner on LJ, and people with good taste had said positive things about her. And I picked it up just now because I needed something take away the bad taste of The Black Prince. I don't think it's necessarily useful to identify high fantasy as escapist, but the awful Murdoch book left me craving something where at least I could identify the good guys even if it wasn't certain they would win.
How it came into my hands: I can't remember now, ack, I was doing so well with this log. My best guess is Dundee charity shops, but anyway it's a book I'd been vaguely intending to read for a while but there have been higher priorities.
Swordspoint is much, much cleverer than its packaging suggests. The standard "fantasy for grown-ups" blurb usually suggests generic sword-and-sorcery with explicit sex tacked on, so I was surprised to find Swordspoint is a genuinely mature book (although it does have quite a lot of sex in it as well!) At the same time, it does work as a straight fantasy, it's not self-consciously clever to the extent that the story is spoilt. It's very, very exciting, and it doesn't violate genre conventions so much as subverting and transcending them.
I was hooked from the frontispiece which manages to juxtapose Plato and Thurber to very impressive effect. Then I was even more hooked by the writing in the first couple of paragraphs: lyrical but just tinged with ironic self-awareness. And then it just got really exciting. It's an adventure with just a tinge of mystery; it works really well with balancing viewpoints to control the pace of revealing information, while also creating a lot of very solid characters.
Also, Swordspoint does moral ambiguity exceptionally well, avoiding the usual cliches that happen when a writer is trying for that too earnestly. The narrative voice isn't telling you how to judge the characters, just presenting plausible, complex people and their actions. It displays all the romance expected of the genre but it's also critical of the romantic view, presenting real human suffering and perhaps a smidgen of socialism, but without ever getting didactic. The swordfighting is the supreme example of the book working at several levels: there is the glamour of fighting for honour, but there's also the pointless misery of people getting killed over stupid arguments.
The writing falls short of technical perfection; the style suffers a bit from JK Rowling's adverb disease, and the absolute obsession with avoiding ambiguous pronouns gets annoying. And there are some oddnesses with POV: it's not consistent with how much the viewpoint is in characters' heads and how much external, and the rather abrupt tense switching might be deliberate but really doesn't work. But in spite of that it's a very good story, with lots of great twists and a lot to mull over despite its strong accessibility.
Happily, ploni_bat_ploni showed up while I was in the middle of this review. It was delightful to see her, and we excercised lots of willpower and managed to get to sleep at a reasonably sensible time. And then today I couldn't stop grinning randomly because of how cool she is. *bounce* So anyway, the book was lying by the computer while I was reviewing it, and she picked it up so I ended up lending it to her. Most pleasing, it's very much the kind of book that wants to be handed round.