Ellen Kushner: The Man With the Knives

Ellen Kushner, in the tradition of writers of fantastic literature everywhere, has built an amazingly detailed and appealing universe in her series of novels and stories about the nameless City that contains Riverside and the Hill and those who inhabit it. The Man With the Knives takes us out of the City for a tale that takes place between The Privilege of the Sword and “The Death of the Duke.”

The story is brief and simple: a man, fever-ridden and weak, stumbles into a village on an island; in fact, he stumbles first to the house of the village healer, Sofia. Something of a misfit herself, she lives alone, taking care of the small ailments and accidents of the villagers and helping with childbirth. He recovers, and eventually they become lovers. The man is Alec Campion, once Duke Tremontaine, grief-stricken (although that seems too small a way to describe his state of mind) at the death of his lover, the swordsman Richard St. Vier.

The story is slight, almost mundane. The reverberations are huge. It’s not a story so much as a poem, a song, a spell, an artifact — a small, exquisitely wrought casket filled with delicately worked gems. And so much for my initial impulse, to try to echo the magic of Kushner’s telling — I can’t do it, not in this context, so I will content myself with noting the spare, inferential narrative, small bits that move from Alec to Sofia, images, recollections, gestures, little revelations that lead us through a much larger story than we find on the pages.

What struck me most forcibly in this tale is the depth of Alec’s grief. It’s the only time that I remember in any of these stories that we’ve seen inside him this clearly, and the impact is amazing. And yet there are no histrionics, no passages heavily descriptive of his state of mind, just a series of quiet glimpses into the mind of a man who has lost what made his life worth living. It’s devastating.

Those bits of narrative are divided by small images by Thomas Canty, who also did covers for Swordspoint and The Fall of the Kings. (Strangely enough, although not strange when you read the story, the front cover of this chapbook is from an anatomical drawing by Vesalius.) Also included is a large fold-out image by Canty, like all of his work that I’ve seen pre-Raphaelite in concept, with that same static remoteness, very romantic (in a twentieth-century meaning of the word) in feeling. Somehow, his work fits the tone of these stories perfectly.

It’s a limited edition, so find a copy before they’re all gone. You won’t regret it.

(Temporary Culture, 2010)

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