Part of why I read so much nonfiction and history these days is because it seems increasingly difficult to find really good speculative fiction. Outside of a handful of standby authors I read consistently, when I pick up a new fantasy or science fiction book I am frequently disappointed. I don’t know how much of this is related to the simple difficulty of statistics, according to which the chances of selecting one of the necessarily smaller number of excellent books will be less than the probability of selecting from the enormously larger quantity of mediocre novels, and how much it is the result of my evolving tastes. Dan Carlin from Hardcore History says that history ruins fiction for him, and I can begin to understand his point. After all, what is fiction but a mirror to the larger story of human history? Or perhaps a magnifying glass would be a more apt piece of glassware.
All of which is to say that, while I knew that I wanted my next few reads to be fiction, I harbored a certain degree of trepidation as I made my selections. Even when I sat down to open Swordspoint, I was cautious, approaching it like someone poking an injured monster to see if it is still alive, anticipating that I would again read through a fantasy novel and finish thinking that it was just okay, and when does the next Stormlight book come out, and why won’t Rothfuss ever finish the Kingkiller Chronicle? Less than a page of Swordspoint was all that was required to chase away my doubts and hesitations and any thoughts of other fantasy stories, because it was that beautiful.
If there is a middle ground between the transparent prose that Sanderson helped popularize, and the lyrical, almost poetic prose of someone like Rothfuss, that is where Swordspoint dwells. Its imagery, descriptions, and language are masterful without becoming their own entity, existing instead on the very edge of the reader’s consciousness, like the sun creating a silhouette of something beautiful, and in the process creating a superior work of art. The mountains are grand in any light, but by the light of the dawn they are rendered especially gorgeous: that is the language of Swordspoint. The focus is still on the mountains, but the vista would be diminished if the sun weren’t falling in just that perfect way.
The storytelling, too, is masterful. While I enjoy epic fantasy, the kinds of stories where the fate of the world hangs in the balance, it is refreshing to read stories that are smaller in scope. Stories that are confined to a small area, perhaps a single city, that do not turn their plots upon the pivot of international conflict and paradigm shifts in the course of history, can be just as powerful, and sometimes more so, than those that feature epoch-defining clashes between the diametrically opposed forces of good and evil. That is a large part of why I think Warbreaker is amongst Sanderson’s best works, and why I think Swordspoint qualifies amongst the best fantasy I’ve read this year. Almost all of the action occurs in a single, vividly rendered city, with only the lightest of glimpses offered of even the surrounding countryside, and the larger world. I wrote recently about my concern that I made Blood Magic too big – I think perhaps it would have worked better if I had kept it more to the scale of the setting in something like Swordspoint.
For a book named “Swordspoint,” the swordsmanship is surprisingly sparse, and the plot does not turn on vivid action sequences and duels, but rather on character and intrigue. In the MICE paradigm, Swordspoint is heavily character driven; I would say that it is more of a political story than an action one. Yes, the main character is a swordsman, a peculiar class of mercenary duelists in Kushner’s world, and yes, he is an exceptional duelist who invokes his talents frequently throughout the story, but always in the service of the characters. Yet it his relationship with the mysterious Alec, and the scheming of the nobility in whose webs our protagonist is incidentally entangled, that drive the plot and the conflicts.
If this novel as a substantial flaw, it is a certain indecision I discerned on the part of the author about how deeply to involve the reader in the nobility’s conniving. For the first half, perhaps two thirds, of the book, we receive frequent viewpoints from noble characters, revealing their schemes, but most of them are dropped for the latter parts of the novel. I suspect this is to keep from revealing too much that would release some of the tension from the swordsman’s primary plot, but it has the effect of making the ending feel a little abrupt and abortive.
Like The Left Hand of Darkness, I found out afterwards that this book is lauded for its “progressive” themes, which also like The Left Hand of Darkness, I found to be overstated praise. While some books that receive such praise wear their agendas on their sleeves and are little more than verbose polemics on their topic of choice, in Swordspoint, as in The Left Hand of Darkness, there isn’t any such agenda. There are just characters, living their lives and going about their business in their world. This understated approach is humanizing, and makes for much better reading than the alternative. Even parts of the storytelling that might otherwise be unnecessarily graphic or dark are in service to the plot, to the world, and to the characters, and that is why it works, unlike in something like Black Leopard, Red Wolf, where such details seem added just to make the story edgier.
There are more books in the Swordspoint world, and the book was good enough that I would be tempted to seek out its sequels in the future. At the same time, I hesitate to risk polluting the beauty of the original experience with additional stories. The plot was nicely wrapped up, and there is no need, in my mind, to return to Kushner’s deliberately unnamed city. I would like it to live in its mystery, to wonder at and to hold up as an example of the pinnacle of this kind of fantasy.
If you’ve read many of our other reviews, you know that I am rarely effusive or unreserved in my praise and recommendations of the books I read. In this case, I offer my whole-hearted recommendation. Whatever kind of fantasy you normally read, Swordspoint needs to make its way onto your reading list.