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414 Swordspoint, Ellen Kushner

In a field dulled by the myriad repetitions of good-versus-evil and hack/slash/zap/throw-the-dice plotting, Kushner’s Swordspoint is the whetstone to renew its cutting edge. Kushner’s world is a place without magic, yes—until one recognizes the magic lurking underneath the surface: the textual magic of a writer who knows exactly what she is doing with language, characters, and plots.

The story is told through the eyes of a limited omniscient narrator, a third person that is both the reader and another character in the story. And, although this is the usual in most novels, Kushner has taken this extra character quite literally, by revealing to the narrator/reader only such things as the five senses can reveal. Thus many aspects of Kushner’s society do appear as “blanks”—for who can truly know everything about their own culture? This limitation goes far beyond just culture, though, for Kushner’s invisible narrator is considered knowledgeable of the daily workings of her society, knowledge which the reader gains only through the actions and events of the novel, not from the Stapeldonian-narrator. Kushner has done the near impossible: the elimination of extrapolation, the negation fo the “info dump.” Kushner drops the reader into a sea of words, causing some readers to flounder about in search of life-jackets, but rewarding those willing to exercise their puzzle-solving ability.

As we place the pieces together, we see that Swordspoint is a novel about two sides of a blade—one side smooth and polished, the other rough and deadly—and about two people who are caught on the edge, each from one side of the blade trying to move to the other. Kushner’s culture reflects this side by having only two poles for people to gravitate to, the upper and lower classes. In Riverside there is no middle class, just people pausing in their steady travel from one pole to the other. This absence is hardly noticeable, anyway, given the context of the novel. (The middle class is a relatively recent addition to our own culture, emerging in the 15th century.)

While it is true that this approach seems to leave the characters flat and un-human, the reader should realize that Kushner intends to play fair and refuses to break her own rules for the sake of easy understanding. Their unhumanness comes from the bias which we use to type people we meet on the street. Because Swordspoint is a fantasy, we expect fantasy characters and try to put Richard and Alec into our preconceived molds of hero, anti-hero, or villain. And then we get upset because Kushner has left no guides for us to identify the characters with stock fantasy roles. Each character is a true mystery. This is obviously seen in the main plot of the book, where Richard tries to discover (or not discover in some instances) who Alec actually is. Not only is Alec mysterious to Richard, but he is a mystery to the reader as well. As Richard discovers more about Alec, so does the reader. As our knowledge grows, so does Alec’s character because it is this knowledge that fleshes him out to us.

But remember that Kushner is using third-person limited omniscience. Although the reader is hampered by the strict limitations place by Kushner, the reader has the advantage of omniscience. The reader is allowed to see the world in the actions of several characters, not just one. The interlocking actions, clues to the mind of the characters, open the doors of perception and imagination, forcing the reader to build a non-textual set of motivations for each character. What scenes follow either confirm or deny the reader’s hypothetical constructs, and yet provide still more detail to build on. By the end of the novel, some characters are as familiar as family, and others misunderstood enemies. Truly this is more like real life than the novel in which the author spills out their own angst in the guide of a “well-rounded” character.

It is this resemblance to true reality that is Kushner’s piece de resistance. The world of Swordspoint is nothing like any place or time, or combination thereof, from our own world. And yet it seems like it should have existed because the people, who concerns may be different from ours, have the same basic needs: love, happiness, friendship, security, and justice.

Of course Swordspoint isn’t a bad novel! And, although I may exaggerate to call it a “great novel,” Swordspoint is definitely a cut above the rest.

[Finished 1989; originally appeared in NOVA Express]

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Swordspoint, Ellen Kushner by Glen Engel-Cox is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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