“Above him, the stars shone frosty and remote in the clear sky. They wouldn’t dare to twinkle at him, not in the position he was in.”
– Swordspoint, Ellen Kushner
Genre: Fantasy, romantic (but not a romance)
Categories: M/M, M/F, politics & intrigue, royalty and nobility, hidden identity, swords & swordplay
Content Warnings (highlight to read): Frequent but not super graphic murder & violence. Recreational drug use. Discussions & ideation of suicide. Very morally ambiguous protagonists.
Description: A “classic melodrama of manners” where disputes are settled with sharp blades and sharper tongues. Swordspoint follows an interweaving set of characters and perspectives in a struggle for political power in the world of Riverside: Richard St Vier, an excellent swordsman but not much for conversation; Alec, his sharp-tongued lover with bad habits and worse ideas; Michael Godwin, a young lord who finds himself involved in games over his head; an elegantly powerful Duchess; and the rest of an engaging and largely morally ambiguous cast.
In Glove of Satin, Glove of Bone by Rachel White, Muriel and Enne were terribly once passionate women of action—an ex-wicked witch, and one of the enforcers sent to stop people just like her—who have since somehow lost the spark of passion. When they became lovers, they left their previous lines of work and began a business together repairing magical tomes, teaching a young apprentice (more like their adoptive daughter) the business after them. But something has gotten lost, and it’s not until the wrong book falls into their hands and brings with it all sorts of shadows from the past that they may begin to find it again.
Rachel White makes a fascinating choice with this book by setting it after a “Happily For Now” and showing the complications of two very different people trying to turn it into a “Happily Ever After” instead. Muriel and Enne’s relationship has fallen apart; not only are they no longer lovers, it seems like it’s difficult for them to even relate to each other any more. Muriel likes fashion and drama; Enne likes practicality and predictability. Caught in the middle of this is their apprentice, their work, their feelings about their relationship to the Council—everything between them is getting hit from both sides by the darts of their frustration.
Because of that, the overall sense of the book isn’t building their relationship for the first time but rebuilding by picking through the fragments of what’s fallen down and finding what’s still able to work. Before that, of course, the characters need to want to rebuild, which is the really challenging part. Helping (?) with that is a terrifyingly destructive grimoire, Muriel’s old lover and teacher in the ways of the wicked arts, and a tangle of conflict over why the Council might want this book repaired.
The characters in this book are frankly incredible. Muriel is everything I want in a character—even if I can immediately identify that I’m far more like Enne myself. Leo is a delight and how annoyed the characters are by him is instantly funny, and I found myself rooting for the two archivists from the moment they appeared onscreen. The antagonists too are clearly defined and interesting in their own right, and it seemed perfectly done to have so much of the climax hinging around another woman who’s found herself in the place that Muriel used to be.
There is a repeated theme of age which I admit I didn’t entirely understand the use of—the two lead characters were both barely thirty, and this was portrayed as the line where one Becomes Old and a great deal of the problem between them. I felt like it was aiming for a theme of Muriel fighting age tooth and claw, and Enne throwing herself into it too early, but the narrative itself seemed to agree that they were in fact Old At Thirty. I was never entirely sure if this was a fact inside the text (ie Thirty Is Old in this world) or if it wasn’t one and thus the characters’ approach to this milestone age was meant to be a mistaken overreaction on both their parts. I want to think it was the latter, but I didn’t notice any place in the narrative that established the cultural baseline to compare it against. It’s a minor issue but it came up so frequently (including in the antagonist’s speech at the climax) that I found myself wanting the clarity.
The plot of the story is rather simple, but it doesn’t need to be more complex, in my opinion—the overall thrust is a character piece, examining the characters’ relationships to each other, their past, and their current chosen profession. The grimoire itself is nearly an afterthought, and I’m not sure I needed much more from it, except maybe to clarify what’s going on with the book and the council, and why they took it back when not fully repaired but it was implied they’d send the other books to Muriel and Enne next. The main plot itself seemed a little unresolved as a result; why did the council have the book, if it lured people with its power, was it safe with them, etc.
Then again, this might be a set up for the next book—if so, bring it on! I’d be excited to see how Muriel and Enne work on their relationship, and the ways they deal with their ongoing frustrations in the future.