Recommended Listen: Swordspoint by Ellen Kushner

Last month I listened to Holly Black's Curse Workers trilogy, narrated by Jesse Eisenberg (he played Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network), because Daisy Whitney couldn't stop gushing about how awesome Jesse Eisenberg was as the first-person narrator, Cassel Sharpe. Daisy was right. Jesse totally kills as Cassel. He was so good I think he made Cassel even more interesting — and I was already a big fan since I'd already read the trilogy. I haven't listened to many audiobooks, but Eisenberg's narration really brought home how incredible a good audiobook can be. Because of that, I tried another audiobook: Swordspoint by Ellen Kushner. This fantasy novel was originally published in 1987, but last year Ellen Kushner recorded an audiobook edition to as part of a "Neil Gaiman Presents" line of audiobooks for Audible. I had the privilege of meeting Ellen before I heard the audiobook, which is probably good because it means I didn't embarrass myself by being a drooling fangirl at the time. (I will be next time! You've been warned, Ellen!)

Swordspoint is set in an alternate European-ish, Renaissance-ish world, in a city full of intrigue and swashbuckling. In this city, nobles hire swordsmen to challenge others to duel to the death. It's a bloodthirsty yet somehow honorable way of taking care of personal and/or political business. The book is about Richard St. Vier, the swordsman of his time, and his lover, a mysterious scholar named Alec.

(Yes, lover. In the world of Swordspoint, having same-sex lovers doesn't appear to be terribly unusual, though it might be a bit exotic. So you know what that means? No coming out! Yay!)

In the introduction to the audiobook, Neil Gaiman describes Swordspoint this way: "as if Jane Austen had written fantasy." When he said that, I got it immediately. The book is indeed about daring battles to the death, but it is also about the delicate details of society. It is about power and privilege; wealth and secrets.

And it is beautifully written. The world of Riverside and its surrounding city is expertly rendered, and after listening to Swordspoint I immediately started listening to one of the sequels, The Privilege of the Sword (also read by Ellen Kushner) because I wanted to be back in that world right away. Look at the evocative precision of this first paragraph alone:

"Snow was falling on Riverside, great white feather-puffs that veiled the cracks in the facades of its ruined houses; slowly softening the harsh contours of jagged roof and fallen beam. Eaves were rounded with snow, overlapping, embracing, sliding into each other, capping houses all clustered together like a fairy-tale village. Little slopes of snow nestled in the slats of shutters still cozily latched against the night. It dusted the tops of fantastical chimneys that spiraled up from frosted roofs, and it formed white peaks in the ridges of the old coats of arms carved above the doorways. Only here and there a window, its glass long shattered, gaped like a black mouth with broken teeth, sucking snow into its maw."

What a perfect depiction of a fairy tale city, complete with the darkness lurking within. Who could not be lured in by these lines? *clutches lines*

The book is full of brilliant sentences like these — something that I became even more aware of with the audiobook because Ellen Kushner herself narrates the story. She reads these sentences with great skill and panache, truly giving audible meaning to "well-turned phrase."

Ellen is assisted in the narration with a supporting cast of actors, who read portions of the audiobook in character. At first I admit it was a little confusing, because the actors don't read all their characters' lines; Ellen reads some of them. But stick with it, because the confusion faded quickly as I figured out what was going on. (Also, the voice of the actor who reads Richard St. Vier's lines: Swoonworthy. Really.) Additionally, the audiobook is enhanced with sound effects: the ringing metal of sword fights, the murmur of crowds, and music. It's all very well done.

In case you hadn't noticed, I highly recommend it, and you can buy the audiobook at Audible. Happy listening!