Ellen Kushner: Mannerpunk, Klezmer, and English ballads

Let the fairy-tale begin on a winter’s morning, then, with one drop of blood new-fallen on the ivory snow: a drop as bright as a clear-cut ruby, red as the single spot of claret on the lace cuff.

And thus starts Swordspoint: A Melodrama of Manners, the first novel in the Riverside series by Ellen Kushner. If there is a more perfect sentence, I have not encountered it! And it just gets better from there.

Swordspoint (1987) and (co-authored with Delia Sherman) The Fall of the Kings (2002), are mannerpunk novels set in a nameless imaginary capital city and its raffish district of Riverside, where swordsmen-for-hire both live and ply their trade for whoever will hire them. Kushner has written a sequel to Swordspoint set eighteen years after Swordspoint, called The Privilege of the Sword, published in 2006. Swordspoint just came out in a superbly crafted audiobook!

Along with a handful of stories including the latest, The Man with The Knives, included in The Best Science Fiction & Fantasy Of The Year, Vol. 5 (2010), ed. Jonathan Strahan, and available online here for your reading pleasure, these books are possibly the finest winter reading you will be privileged to read. Well-written characters, interesting plots (lots of those), and strongly influenced by the sort of Regency setting makes for absolutely wonderful reading as you drink hot chocolate (a favourite drink in these tales) and snuggle in by the fireplace.

As our reviewer said in looking at The Fall of Kings (the following applies to all of the Riverside tales, [There is] ‘witty dialogue, prose as precise as a blow to the heart and as glittering as the sword that dealt it, gorgeous young men and women to suit any taste, hot and elegant sex to suit any sexual persuasion, magic with a true aura of numinous danger, thrilling fights, thrilling scholarly debates, old books, swashbuckling aunts, exquisite clothing, ancient rituals, hot chocolate, female pirates, erotic paintings, expensive jewelery, political intrigue, taverns, ghosts, true love, true kings, and a convincing demonstration of the importance of first sources in historical research.’

Kushner has other superb writings (and music) that you surely know about. Her Thomas the Rhymer novel (1990) is based on the ballad of the same name in which Thomas Learmonth’s love for the Queen of Elfland was rewarded with the gift of prophecy, a curse for most mortals. The novel won the 1991 World Fantasy Award and Mythopoeic Award. It’s worth noting that Kushner has created and performed a live version of this novel!

Ellen Kushner has edited three anthologies as well, including Basilisk (Ace Books, 1980), and The Horns of Elfland and the forthcoming (May 24, 2011) Welcome to Bordertown, the latter two both reviewed by us. Ms. Kushner has written a fair bit of short fiction and poetry as well, which show up in such stellar publications as the Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror anthology.

Worth checking out is a work Ellen Kushner created in collaboration with the Boston-based six-piece klezmer band Shirim as a stage show, The Golden Dreydl: a Klezmer ‘Nutcracker’ for Chanukah went on to become an award-winning holiday programme that airs on American public radio stations around the country. She later wrote The Golden Dreydl, a wonderful short novel about the magical toy.

Her current project, a creation with a long and fascinating list of artistic collaborators is The Witches Of Lublin which sounds like it will be quite amazing!

Postscript: Ellen told me just now in an email that the setting of the Riverside series is ‘inspired by all the cities I have read about, studied, and walked in, and loved the best: Elizabethan & Regency London, 18th century Paris, New York in the 1980s, and a few dozen others . . . ’

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