The Man With the Knives: Afterthoughts

The Man With the Knives
by Ellen Kushner
19 pages


I was first introduced to Ellen Kushner’s work through her novel Swordspoint which became a quick and lasting favorite of mine. Kushner has a way of writing that carries both descriptive and emotional power without tipping into the realm of wordy or sappy. Her characters are neither too strong nor too weak, but that wonderful middle ground at which a fictional figure becomes a believable human.

The Man With The Knives

The Man With the Knives is a short, plaintive story which continues the events after Swordspoint. I won’t go into tremendous detail as to the plot, because the story is only 19 pages long and there’s too much I could ruin for anyone who isn’t familiar with this storyline. In it, we have Sofia, a spinster doctor in a small village where no one can read, and the mysterious man with the knives, who comes to her half-dead, drenched in rain, and with a terrible infection in his chest. Sofia cares for him and as he recovers they slowly become intimate. The man with the knives is an enigma to her, and to everyone in the village. He is a foreigner, who can only speak a broken portion of their language, but as strange as he is, he has knowledge that saves one of them, and makes him a local hero.

For his part, the man with the knives has things he can’t say, and things he doesn’t wish to say. There’s a painful past he’s running from, and the less he dwells on those events and those wounds the better, though that is easier said than done.

I’ve mentioned before just how amazing Kushner is with opening lines, and The Man With the Knives is no different:

Her father had told her a story about a sailor who fell out of love with the sea, so he put his oar up on his shoulder and walked inland far and far, until he finally met someone who looked at the oar and said, What’s that thing you’re carrying, friend? and there he stayed.

It’s a powerful opening, both relevant to the story and hooking on its own. The folktale feel of it is prevalent throughout the narrative and in much of Kushner’s writing on the whole. The story itself is as deeply mournful as it is tender and loving, with characters whom I’d already fallen in love with in previous works.

Another thing I want to mention is the artwork. The illustrations by Thomas Canty are stunningly gorgeous, and add to the folkish and ephemeral feel of the book.

I’ve read this short story over three times now and I can’t help but to still feel the longing and the sadness that is so engrained into each word of this book that it seems as though they were written in heart blood.

I was lucky enough to receive a copy of the book from the author, however if you can’t find your own copy of this limited run to purchase for yourself, you can read the story in its entirety on the Tor website.

The next book on my reading list is The Magician’s Nephew  by C.S. Lewis.


5 thoughts on “The Man With the Knives: Afterthoughts

  1. What an opening line! It feels so elegant and it masterfully hooks you right at the end. How could you not jump at the next lines of text, desperate for more of the same?
    The short story sounds so intriguing, and now, of course, I’ll have to find myself a copy of Swordpoint first. But I’m grateful for the link to the follow up tale. Thanks, NJ. Very much looking forward to both of them.

  2. When I read this story to my girlfriend (after Swordspoint and PotS) she lay down on the floor like she was catatonic and would only respond to me by saying “I hate you” in a monotone voice. She STILL hasn’t forgiven me, or Ellen Kushner, for this story. Which just goes to show how truly powerful and heartbreaking and PERFECT this story is. It’s the only way certain tales could have ended. I think that’s what I appreciate about it so much; it’s such a terrible tragedy, and it’s the only one that works. It’s just… perfect. Truly perfect.

    • I can completely sympathize with your girlfriend’s position. After I read this I could only sit there with the book in my hands and go, “Huh.” Then I read it again and I got misty eyed. Then I went back and re-read ‘The Death of the Duke’ and got even more sniffley. It is a perfect story, succinct and powerful and emotional and, as you say, the only way it could have ended.

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