Review: Riverside Series, Ellen Kusher

First off, guys, mannerpunk is a thing. Sweet Krishna on a pogostick, I will now restructure my entire life and every perspective around this revelation. Allow me a moment for the vapors.

Anyway, the Ginger Waif is back. Maybe for realsies this time. I’m now settled in to home and job a bit, and the library is easily reached. I’ve got lots of books to talk about, so prepare for rapid-fire review time. Today’s exploration is of a conundrum of a couple of books. Swordspoint, The Fall of the Kings, and The Privilege of the Sword are Ellen Kushner’s (and, in the second case, Delia Sherman’s) rather cultish tales of intrigue and maneuvering.

Mannerpunk. Hee.

Anyway, Swordspoint follows the exploits of this kind of irritating, scholarly drug addict named Alec and his almost equally dysfunctional lover, Richard St. Vier. They get in a lot of fights and are the victims of political intrigue. The Privilege of the Sword follows the career of impoverished noblewoman Katherine as she learns to use a sword and deal with the upper crust under the auspices of her uncle, the Mad Duke. To explain how these people are connected would require some spoilers and a chart, so suffice it to say they live in the same city and move in similar circles sometimes, some years apart. In The Fall of the Kings, well, uh, alright, confession time. I didn’t finish Fall of the Kings. I got a third of the way through it. I don’t know where this book went off the rails or if it’s the second author’s fault, but boy, did I not care the least bit. The characters had lost all their life and bite, the plot was less extant than in either of the other books, and the whole thing was mostly weird, pseudo-pagan blather that seemed to center mainly around having lots of gay sex.

That’s one thing about Swordspoint and its companions. There’s lots and lots of gay sex. Mostly male, sometimes female, everywhere and all the time. It sometimes reads like a slash fanfic. I’m pretty sure everyone in this universe is at least bi. I don’t object. I just wonder if there’s something in the water. Maybe, given that these are viciously political, high stakes stories where everything is on the bargaining table, and given that the society seems to disapprove of homosexuality only insofar as old ladies sniff about it, sex is traded like any other commodity? It’s an interesting take. But you do begin to wonder how they keep their population steady after a bit.

So yes, I am a bad, bad reviewer. I couldn’t get through The Fall of the Kings. The world seemed much more richly imagined than in either of the other books, and that was interesting, but the characters were flat and I have only so much tolerance for sex and scenery spirituality in place of action. I read Marion Zimmer Bradley in middle school and I don’t need more of it. A pretty, aimlessly sexy world full of boring people who did things for inscrutable reasons is no fun for me. It was rather the reverse of the other books, actually.

The real call to Swordspoint is the characters. Alec is wonderfully, horribly damaged, written with compassion and affection but without any illusions that he’s a hero for being a traumatized emotional wreck with every [insert thing here] abuse history there is. He’s a black-clad broken bird for grown-ups. Katherine grates a little at the beginning of her story when she just whines a bunch about wanting dresses, but she grows up rapidly and reasonably and becomes the hero of her own tale more than her predecessor in Riverside ever did. The side cast is just as rich and sparking and deep, carved from bright and exotic stuff all of them, whether ennui-plauged, arrogant noble or wretchedly and erratically stern swordmaster, down to the irksome street urchins. I want to meet these people, though most of them I wouldn’t want to chat with regularly, because they’re tightly-wound bundles of issues and mental illness. They’re affectionate grotesques and fairy tale heroes brought back to earth.

And their sex scenes are generally both tasteful and fairly visceral. She does a better job than a lot of fantasy writers, and I think it’s worth noting. In the two books being regarded herein, sex is queasy and awkward, but it’s supposed to be. Everything feels uncomfortable and ill-advised and a bit stupid, and that’s a more fair treatment of the subject than you’ll usually find. And if you’re a Ginger waif and you think nice romance is boring, these awkward character studies are infinitely more intriguing.

Anyway, the characters are incredible and get under your skin like a splinter, only mildly more pleasant. So it’s sort of strange to me that the world they inhabit is so very under-imagined. I’m not being fair, perhaps, because The Fall of the Kings is mostly history and scenery. It’s just incomprehensible and silly and wrapped in layers of inscrutable mysticism. In the other two books, which my brain insists are the actual canon, the city is unnamed, the country is unnamed, the mythology is vague, the history is barely hinted at… There’s a vacuum. And it’s a fair choice. You’re living in the city with the characters. The action never stops to tell you why there’s a statue of a guy with donkey legs and a large peacock in the fountain (disclaimer: this specifically does not happen). That’s just there. I can deal.

What I’m less comfortable with is the way the city is put together. The manners of the nobility are a vague hodgepodge of Regency rules and Renaissance aesthetics. The technology level is all over the place. We see essentially nothing of the city’s day to day economy, so I’ll leave that aside, but if you didn’t assume the place was really big, you’d assume no one there does anything but hang with prostitutes and go to the theater. Perhaps I’m spoiled. I follow authors like Lynn Flewelling who develop their local anthropology down to the dinner plates and gleeful fantasists like Cat Valente who create worlds that clearly work according to entirely different rules. The folk of Riverside and the surrounding area (Riverside is a neighborhood, and the only place that gets a damn name) are so grounded and earthy it’s very strange for them to have no particular place in the world.

But a weirdly realized universe is the author’s prerogative. What I can’t reconcile myself to is the complete lack of a central plot, at least in Swordspoint. The Privilege of the Sword is a coming of age story and Katherine’s journey growing up and following her goals, while not precisely a plot, is something to follow the whole way through. And I think Fall of the Kings was eventually going to be about the boring main character and his boring boyfriend restoring the monarchy? That’s kind of a story. Swordspoint, though… It has many, many subplots. There’s a whole thing about this young rake who gets in a spat with an old guy who wants to sleep with him and he wants to sleep with this duchess he does some stuff and interacts a little with everyone else and leaves. No reason. Alec was a scholar but he got in trouble when he and his friends discovered stuff that challenged existing notions and got kicked from university. Has potential! But no, that doesn’t really go anywhere, either. There’s a sort of central thread (in that it follows Alec and St Vier closely) about a shady contract to kill a guy. It shows up no more than a third of the way into the story and stays until the end. But it doesn’t stand out any.

Know what Swordspoint reads like? Like someone took really, really careful notes of everything that ever happened to their friends in a really long-running, complicated, political LARP. Stories start and stop as people come up with ideas or join and leave the game. Everyone meets once or twice just for the sake of it, but ultimately they’re all pursuing their own stories. I guess that’s one way to write a novel. Hell, George R. R. Martin has become a universal nerd darling for doing pretty much the same thing on a larger scale. But I can’t help but say… My kingdom for a plot.

The wordsmithing of the books is nothing to really note. It’s competent. Sentences don’t hurl themselves angrily at your sensibilities and they don’t bring you to raptures. The pacing is usually pretty good and everything’s consistent. Sometimes, mostly in Alec’s scenes, there’s a very visceral, heavy darkness to the tone, but mostly she just tells you what’s happening in whatever style’s appropriate. Not overly concerned with the particulars of style.

So how to grade these books? I love them and would read them again, except the one I couldn’t read at all. I love the story, but I can’t pick out what it is. I want to hug the characters, and I hate hugging, but after that I want to put them back in the dysfunctional asshole box where they can’t bother nice people. I might like to visit, just to get an idea of what the city actually looks or feels like besides someone crashed Jane Austen into an Errol Flynn movie. They’re kind of awful, but they’re fantastic. I haven’t been this conflicted since I lived someplace with easy access to deep-fried pickles. Go ahead. Read them. Just don’t come crying to me when you do.

(Mannerpunk. Squee.)

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