The Big Idea: Ellen Kushner

If you’re a fan of Ellen Kushner’s Swordspoint, then you’re going to be very happy with Tremontaine, a prequel serialized story that takes place in the same world, fifteen years earlier. Kushner, who is spearheading the novelization with co-writers Alaya Dawn Johnson, Malinda Lo, Joel Defner, Racheline Maltese and Patty Bryant, is here to talk about the world of her stories and everything that sprung up because of that world.


I did not intend to invent the “Fantasy of Manners.” I wasn’t even sure that  Swordspoint was fantasy.  I began my first novel in my 20s, when “fantasy” still meant either elegant little antique curiosities like Lud-in-the-Mist, or great big outdoor epics involving treks through forests, snow and maybe a big cave that imitated The Lord of the Rings. My friends and I devoured them all.

But great fantasy must tell a personal truth: that’s what gives it power.  Tolkien’s Mordor was forged by his time in the trenches of  the Somme, and his Shire by his rambles in the sweet English countryside.  In the 1980s, many of us aspiring fantasy writers lived in black leather jackets and blighted cities, paying low rent in formerly gorgeous housing now crummy, run down and cheap; architectural splendor still hanging by a thread, and keep your keys stuck between your knuckles when you walk home at night, in case anyone tries to mess with you.  We desired Middle Earth and Earthsea with a great desiring – but when we tried to write our own versions, it came up false. They were our dreams, but they’d been dreamt by someone else. That wasn’t our real world.

Our world had sweaty rock clubs, and the Pre-Raphaelite art revival, a poster in every dorm room.  It had Sarah Crewe in a garret telling stories to a starving servant girl, and pre-AIDS glamorous outlaw gay men; Richard Lester’s Beatles movies and his The Three Musketeers, and it had Oscar Wilde, and Georgette Heyer’s exquisite, hilarious social comedies set in her world of Edwardian-inflected
“Regency Romance” (famously called by Cynthia Heimel “Bertie Wooster for girls!”); it had those boon companions Rocky and Bullwinkle, Napoleon Solo and Ilya Kuryakin,  Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, Butch and Sundance . . . and it had Angela Carter and Joanna Russ.

Put in a pot, heat, stir, type it up on fancy paper – and expect no one to buy your novel or understand why you’d written it.

I hedged Swordspoint ‘round with warnings that I was messing with tradition.  The fairy tale scene it opens with is a sham, concluding:

But there is no one behind the broken windows . . . No king rules them any more . . . And already this morning more than one drop of blood has been shed.

And then, just to be sure, I mocked my style before anyone else could do it, titling my book:  Swordspoint: a Melodrama of Manners.

I was afraid it really was a melodrama, see, or that it would be taken for one: that because I felt passionate about my characters and they felt passionate about everything – much as they try to hide it – and because my novel featured petty evil rather than grandeur, little human drawing room interactions instead of great outdoor battles, I had somehow gone over the edge of what was acceptable.  I was afraid the book wouldn’t sell.

And it didn’t, really. Many editors, both fantasy and mainstream, turned it down. When it was finally published by David Hartwell at Arbor House, it was a critical success; it got amazing blurbs like “it’s as if Noel Coward had written a vehicle for Errol Flynn” (Gene Wolfe), it inspired heated debate on whether a “fantasy” with no magic could be considered fantasy at all . . . Swordspoint slowly grew as an underground classic, but I doubt it ever made any publisher much money.

I wasn’t the only such writer of my generation. I just happened to be the first to publish in what soon became a little genre all its own, with books written by Steven Brust and Emma Bull, Farren Miller and Elizabeth Willey and many, many more. We didn’t agree to do this; it just happened.

In 1826, Sir Walter Scott – the huge romantic sword-swinging fantastical historical novelist of his day – wrote in his journal:

[Jane Austen] ha[s] a talent for describing the involvements and feelings and characters of ordinary life, which is to me the most wonderful I ever met with. The Big Bow-wow strain I can do myself like any now going; but the exquisite touch, which renders ordinary commonplace things and characters interesting . . . is denied to me.

We had, without meaning to, turned our backs on the Big Bow-wow, in favor of a sort of Chamber Fantasy, set not in an imagined middle-ages of armor and great halls, but in later periods, where wit and manners made or broke someone’s fate. Maybe because we’d been socialized in the 60s, we were fascinated with how that strange and alien thing, propriety, was like magic: learn its rules, and you’ll succeed in the grown-up world; break them, and you’d better be better than everyone else, or have powerful allies!

In 1991, my colleague Donald G. Keller decided to write a critical piece about us.  Instead of the term he initially used, which I disliked, I suggested he call the style “fantasy of manners”–which, when his piece came out, some wags quickly nicknamed manner-punk.

Now, of course, “Fantasy of Manners” is a recognized genre, even though people may disagree on its precise definition – which shifts with the tides of new novels and new influences, as it should.

And this is where I admit that I neither know nor care what Category my work fits into.  To me, a novel is a novel, and marketing is marketing, and the twain shall inevitably meet, and it has to be called something.  Although I yearned not to be ghettoized with my first novel, I realize now that I was insanely lucky to be published in genre.  The mainstream readers I lost because my work has Fantasy Cooties are nothing compared to the ones who devour the Riverside world and have an endless appetite for more; who still argue about what makes it fantasy (“the flavor!” someone once explained), readers who make drawings and write fanfic and even cosplay my characters.

Which is why I think the world is ready for Tremontaine – and why there are enough other authors I respect to join me in writing about my Swordspoint world.

The world of fantasy readers continues to get bigger – and less fussy about labels.  Even mainstream kids now grew up on the magic of Harry Potter – and on endless remakes of Jane Austen.  The world is a lot safer for us fantasists of manners than it was when our works were originally created.  I believe the existing fans will love Tremontaine, and will glory, as I do, in the opening up of my world to some of the sharp, funny, wise and insightful younger voices writing today. But it’s just as exciting for me to think that the groundwork has been laid, and that Fantasy of Manners has finally come into its own.


Tremontaine: Amazon|iTunes|Kobo|Serial Box

Read or listen to an excerpt. Visit Ellen Kushner’s site. Follow her on Twitter.

17 Comments on “The Big Idea: Ellen Kushner”

  1. I cannot say just how much I loved Swordspoint (and the Privilege of the Sword, and the Fall of the Kings, and, and, and). Ellen and her cohort (particularly Terri Windling) have brought so much great fantasy into the world, it’s amazing. And I get frustrated at times that there isn’t MORE of this stuff. Frankly, I’m not much interested in most ‘dark fantasy’, which seems to be the current hot trend these days, although clearly others read it and enjoy it. So I was overjoyed when I heard about Tremontaine. Thank you Ellen for doing this! I’ve already subscribed.

  2. Swordspoint was pretty awesome. If you liked it, I would recommend the Points novels by Melissa Scott and the late Lisa Barnett.

  3. The link at the bottom of this article goes to Bookburners, not Tremontaine. (you may want to fix.) Because I certainly was interested enough to click, and then baffled.

  4. Yay! This sounds wonderful. I too am not interested in dark fantasy or post apocalyptic books. I am, indeed, a wuss.

    I’ll add this to my to be read pile and I just pulled Swordspoint off my shelf for a re-read.

  5. “But great fantasy must tell a personal truth: that’s what gives it power. ”

    This, this, oh this. And that’s one of the reasons I read writers like Ellen Kushner.

  6. It seems that I will not be able to get those for love (have it) or money (same) unless I buy some new electronic devices? *is unhappy* *considers new electronic devices*

  7. inge: You can read epubs on your computer using the free program Calibre, and, no doubt, other programs and apps. You can read mobi files on your computer or smartphone using a kindle app (or Calibre). Now, if you’re stuck using the library’s computer, there, I can’t help you.

  8. Privatelron –

    Yeah, the Scott/Barnett Points Books are quite enjoyable. Ms. Scott is apparently in the process of writing another and I’m looking forward to it. I’d say they’re a bit more fantasy and a bit less mannered, but they’re still good. Steve Brust’s The Phoenix Guards trilogy is manner-punkesque, making me think of what would have happened if Austen and Dumas collaborated on a fantasy novel. And one of my favorite writers, Martha Wells, wrote what I think of as a fabulous mannerpunk first novel, Element of Fire, which has all the manners of the Three Musketeers, but some nice explode-y bits as well as murderous sorcerers and treacherous Fay (or perhaps murderous Fay and treacherous sorcerers). Her second novel in that world, set 100+/- years later, Death of the Necromancer, also qualifies I think.

  9. Does this have a lot of great banter in it? I like the slice of life fantasy, but for me it has to have some great dialogue to make up for the lack of fit young men swinging their massive swords about.

  10. pixlaw, I’ve read those and they are all pretty good. So is Well’s second and third novels.

  11. Hi Cally,

    I might be having an attack of the stupids — which of those linked is e-pub? Because that would be no problem at all. But all I’m seeing is “get our app”. (I’m new to this, as you might have guessed.)

  12. Trent Baker:

    I haven’t read Tremontaine yet, but Swordspoint has several fit young men swinging their thin dueling swords around. And also banter.

  13. Inge: When I went to the page, there were a series of downarrows with “epub” “mobi” “pdf” “audio” and “read” under them next to the line for “Pilot: Arrivals”. I rightclicked on “epub” and saved the episode to my computer (I presume; I’m holding off reading it). If that’s not what you’re seeing, I don’t know how to help. For what it’s worth, this is the page I’m looking at:

  14. I’m a “Swordspoint” fan. I’m reading the first episode of “Tremontaine” and loving it!