On the treacherous streets of Riverside, a man lives and dies by the sword. Even the nobles on the Hill turn to duels to settle their disputes. Within this elite, dangerous world, Richard St. Vier is the undisputed master, as skilled as he is ruthless–until a death by the sword is met with outrage instead of awe, and the city discovers that the line between hero and villain can be altered in the blink of an eye.
Content notes: blood, sword-related violence, murder, mutilation, kidnapping, family angst, jumping out of windows, sex, dubcon, suicidal ideation, and deception. (But not gender-based violence or queerphobia.)
1. Speculative fiction lends itself to experimenting with world-building–what if everyone were “ambigender” or bisexual, what if non-binary gender identities were considered normal, etc. Swordspoint’s main contribution is the social normalization of bisexuality, particularly with men (in this book–each book seems to have more representation). However, the word bisexual is never used. Does this normalize bisexuality within the narrative, and thus, to the reader, or does this contribute in a way to bi erasure, as bi characters typically have to “show not tell” (aka, be shown to have partner/s of various genders but never discuss bisexual identity or use the “B” word).
LKR: I think not needing a word to differentiate or describe bisexual behavior in their culture is a fairly powerful indicator that bisexuality is normalized in the book’s setting (across classes, too!). I would say that for at least some readers this is likely to work to normalize bisexuality. However, from the perspective of our culture, not using the word bisexuality in this book could be seen as a missed opportunity to unambiguously represent bisexuality in fiction. The language used in the story overall would seem to make the word ‘sexuality’ seem out of place and time, but when conjuring up fictional places that’s not an overwhelming barrier. For me, reading this substantially expanded the number of first-person narratives including bisexuality that I’ve read, so while I think both ‘promotes normalization’ and ‘missed opportunity’ could be applied to this work, it seems to pass the ‘does more good than harm’ test with flying colors.
DTS: I’m glad to hear that other books have more representation! I definitely ended this book with concerns about the way the female characters were being portrayed. The ladies’ sexual and romantic preferences were treated with pretty much universal suspicion in this book–the ones who do have sex are all either coerced into it for a man’s pleasure, or using it to manipulate a man. Not my jam at all! I also walked away from the book feeling like I knew a loads about the range of romantic, sexual, and social options available to men in this world, but I couldn’t have told you very basic facts about the role of women in this society. Can they become swordswomen? Can they inherit property outright, or do they only gain control after the death of a husband? Why is there such a huge gender imbalance in the upper levels of government? I NEED THESE DEETS.
I’ll admit that I spent a lot of time comparing this book to the Nightrunner series, which began publication about a decade later, has a similar aesthetic, and introduces the protagonists’ bisexuality in the same way. I agree with LKR that using modern terms in a setting heavily inspired by 18th century history would have seemed out of place. I do think Kushner could and probably should have put a whole lot more thought into extrapolating how a society that permits a broad range of sexual and gender expression for men might do the same for women (AHEM, Nightrunner, AHEM).
BUT ALSO, this was first published in the 80s. I’m going to give it some extra credit for representing bi characters positively at a time when the average fantasy novel was not exactly a model of healthy sexual expression.
AMR: For the real world, it might be helpful to use the term because of bi erasure, however, I also really like this post from Sociological Images that talks about sexuality as identity and maybe it doesn’t need to be identity. In today’s society, our romantic partners become a strong part of our identity – I am gay, I am straight, I am bi, I am poly, etc. – but should they? Personally, I’d prefer a world where the label doesn’t matter, you speak of your significant other(s) as partner(s) and the gender of any involved party just doesn’t matter because, why the hell should it?*
*This led into a conversation about the definition of bi as “attracted to two or more genders” or “attracted to genders like you and not like you.” Additionally, we had a discussion about sexual orientation as identity as potentially positive (finding a label you feel good about) or limiting (not identifying with a label, or having an attraction-based label disrupted by attraction to someone “outside” your label, like Erika Moen, a lesbian-identified artist who fell in love with a man and updated her label to “queer”). We also discussed bi erasure, the bi+ umbrella, and the idea that bi activists promote that “my partner is not my identity” (that is, bi people are not gay for having a partner of the same gender, etc.), which doesn’t seem to extend into monosexual (cis-based) sexualities.
Basically, I like the normalizing aspect and the fact that no one has to have a label in the book – people just are. I’d love a world where the conversation around books that did obviously characterize sexuality to be asking why the author felt the need to constrain their characters in that way. Given the current climate of questionable acceptance, however, visibility and naming are necessary to get to such a state. I think a good middle ground would be to note the sexuality in descriptions of the story, maybe even on the cover, but to have the world itself be as open and free as it is. Bi erasure is a thing today. I don’t think this book contributes because, well, there is a lot of showing, even for characters in relationships like Alec and Richard, a female partner from Richard’s past is mentioned. Labeling it might help some modern readers to connect with the idea that this is in fact what bisexual means, but I almost prefer the showing, and how everyone is okay with everyone being with everyone, to telling but having it be meaningless.
LM: For me, for fiction that isn’t speculative (so, basically contemporary fiction or historical fiction), it’s super annoying when no one will say bi (or pan, etc.). When you’re writing your own world, like Riverside, Gethen and the Raadch, and societies that have social norms for bisexuality unlike our own cultures’, I think it can be a normalizer. Leckie presented a society with a lot of social boundaries based on class and ethnicity but one without the concept of sexual orientation, as well as one that explored gender identity, but not as it relates to sexuality. Le Guin did something similar with Gethen, where having no fixed gender means having no particular sexuality–anyone can have any genitalia, even if it seems reproductive kemmer is discussed more than kemmer for pleasure (can you choose how you and your partner display? Is this open or enforced heterogamy–and can it even be considered that because Gethenians don’t have a binary gender identity?)
For Riverside, it seems like heterogamous marriages, at least for the aristocracy, are the recognized social and legal relationships, and everything other sexual or romantic relationship is expected and accepted, to some degree, if you have heirs. With the Riversiders and townspeople, at least in this book, it seems they tend to be monogamous but not worry about the gender of their partner. So in this sense, there is a legitimacy gap between the aristocracy’s marriages and their other partners, but that homogamous couples are not uncommon in other classes.
I felt like Kushner did a good job of showing and telling: Ferris only likes women, we are told when we have his POV. Richard’s past lover Jessamyn is introduced in dialogue; Alec is a character and they are shown to be in a sexual relationship (in case it weren’t clear to some of the readers who didn’t read into it at first). Michael Godwin has thoughts as well as actions regarding his attraction and relationships. I’m not sure if Fall of Kings or Tremontaine cover the social aspects more than Swordspoint and Privilege of the Sword do, but I was happy with the books I’ve mentioned and their treatment of societies.
For me, it’s more in contemporary media when characters won’t just say they’re bi (or queer, or questioning!), but dance around it, like Annalise in How to Get Away with Murder, who had the opportunity to correct her ex-girlfriend a couple times in an argument they had about how Annalise was “afraid to be with a woman” and left the girlfriend for a man, and I feel like Annalise should have been like, “I’m bi and you’re awful.” (Or, if Annalise really is biphobic/queerphobic, for some other character to call her out on her internalized queerphobia.)
HG: I tend to think in this case, using the word “bisexuality” would’ve done more harm than good. It wouldn’t have fit into the historical tone, so it would’ve made Swordspoint seem like an “issues” book, and who wants to read that? It works because it’s totally, completely obvious that the characters are bisexual. She’s not avoiding the topic by not using the word. And on the other hand, bisexuality is a cultural concept that wouldn’t really have much meaning in that kind of culture where it’s accepted. If you don’t have to assert it, you don’t need the word. Again, it works because as readers, we get that what we’re seeing is what we would call bisexuality, but at the same time we see that they don’t need to call it anything. For me and my own biased idea of what the world should be like, that’s preferable.
2. How did you feel about Kushner’s technique of introducing each character’s’ bisexuality? (For example, Michael Godwin’s inner monologue is about his desire for several individuals of different genders; for Richard St. Vier, he has a discussion about his current partner and past partner with a friend.)
LKR: I found it direct and unequivocal – there was really no question that the characters wanted to do the things that they wanted to do, and that there were no questions about stigma or shame in their calculations relating to the gender of their sexual partners. Michael Godwin was much more concerned about the other party being desirable than any concern about gender. This presentation would seem to make it difficult for a reader with preconceptions not aligned with the book’s culture to escape how things are seen in that world.
DTS: I thought it was fine! If you peeked into my inner monologue, it would look similar. But, uh, more graphic–my biggest problem with the book was the way the shifting perspectives plus the distant, vague way that sex and violence were described made it hard to tell what was going on at pivotal moments. There were a few scenes where I wasn’t even sure whether attraction or even sex was happening or whether I was reading something between the lines that wasn’t supposed to be there.
Tell me more about Richard’s fighting style! More about what Michael was doing with that one friend who seemed kinda into him! MORE BUCKLING AND UNBUCKLING OF SWASHES PLEASE AND THANK YOU.
I came away from this book feeling like I missed the boat on loving it. This would have rocked my world if I had first read it at 16. At 26, I have enough positive bi representation in my reading material to be picky about this sort of stylistic detail (although I’m sure many of my favorite novels owe a great deal to Kushner’s inspiration).
AMR: I loved it because it just was. Nothing was preachy (EVERYONE IS BI AND YOU SHOULD BE TOO BECAUSE IT’S AWESOME!), nothing was forced (I am a whore/plot point simply to show that I can sleep with any gender, woo!), and it was basically what I’d love to see today. No need to label or define, it’s just a part of life and everyone is cool with it.
I did find the way that Michael was so blunt about it (we were in his head, after all) to be a bit disconcerting for a moment because bisexual characters are so uncommon. I thought the author did a great job of making it just a part of the world and showing that it was there without making it A Thing.
LM: I addressed this above, but I think the mix was good, especially when not everyone is POV, or equally POV. Re: DTS above, I agree that the sex was sometimes confusing. I realize sometimes you have to obfuscate for ratings/genre (so as not to be a romance novel or porn–though that’s imposed by publishing more than readers, I think). I had to read a couple of the sex scenes and relationship/attraction scenes a lot to be like OH RICHARD AND ALEC ARE DOING THE DO; OH, MICHAEL GODWIN IS LOW-KEY BANGING BETRAM. I feel like Kushner wrote sex and attraction a bit clearer in the loose sequel Privilege of the Sword.
HG: Basically the same answer here as my answer to question one. I’ll add that I didn’t find the sex/fighting to be confusing at all, but I read a lot of now-retro fiction so I’m probably just used to it.
Do you notice any discrepancy between the styles of relationships between the men and women (because there are no nonbinary folks in this one); commoner and aristocracy? (Or other groups?)
AMR: It seems like everyone can sleep with anyone else, but the aristocats at least are expected to have [heterogamous] marriages that produce heirs (e.g. the scene where Godwin is with the wife of another noble [Betram]). There also didn’t seem to be any female/female relationships and there were very strong gender roles portrayed EVERYWHERE. There didn’t seem to be male prostitutes or female fighters. It seemed like in Riverside, there wasn’t a need for a public face of the relationship the way there was for the nobles; for the nobles, everything had to look a certain way on the outside, no matter what the actual dynamics of the relationship. Everyone could sleep with anyone else, and there was gossip, but there were no obvious improper relationships and anything outside of marriage was kept quiet.
LM: Definitely. I was WAITING for the Duchess (or any woman character) to have a lady lover, but NO. DENIED. The sequel gets into gender roles a bit more and features at least two queer women, and I’m told that Tremontaine expands on this and also features characters of color.
HG: I’m here being a history nerd again, but I’d love to know how the culture developed into what it is. There’s every appearance of this world/country having had a stronger heteronormative culture in the past, because there’s that holdover of expecting nobles to come in heterosexual pairs. Probably because there’s hereditary nobility, so lineage is important to them. They’ve made the jump to same-gender sex being fine, but not to nontraditional procreation. At the same time, though, apparently heirs are “named,” not assumed. Anyway, there was one implied male prostitute in a scene where St. Vier was meeting up with Kathy, but again there seems to be a residual gender role thing going on throughout. It seemed to me that the noble classes looked down on Riverside “behavior,” but actually the behavior wasn’t all that different, it just threw away the social rules that the nobility claimed to maintain but actually bent all over the place.
Big thanks to all for the lively discussion. We’ll be back soon with our next selection!