The book opens thus:
Snow was falling on Riverside, great white feather-puffs that veiled the cracks in the façades of its ruined houses; slowly softening the contours of jagged roof and fallen beam. [...]
Let the fairy tale begin on a winter's morning, then, 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.
Richard St. Vier is a swordsman who lives in the mean streets of Riverside. Nobles from up on the Hill hire him to duel for their honor, to first blood or to the death. His signature is a killing blow straight to the heart, very difficult, but he's the best.
Alec Campion is a student with a secret past, and he has a bad habit of trying to get himself killed in bar fights. Fortunately (or not) for him, St. Vier took a liking to him and will defend him from the attackers. Sometimes Alec starts fights on purpose, just so he can watch Richard work.
The plot is twisty and full of intrigue, intricate and intimate. Richard and Alec's love story is at the heart of the novel, but there is another larger plot going on around them. There's a power play going on among the nobles, into which Richard and Alec are drawn, in no small part because of Alec's secret past*.
Alec isn't the most likable character; he's an ass, a drug addict, and a bit of a liar. Richard is a cold-blooded killer, with a soft spot for Alec.
Kushner has said that everyone in her books is bisexual; Richard had a wife, and Alec had several female lovers. (Yet people still classify them as "gay lovers;" the book is on lists of books with gay main characters. Bisexual erasure: it's a real thing.) This is wonderful and still rare in publishing.
The edition I own, Bantam Spectra 2003, includes three short stories: "The Swordsman Whose Name was Not Death," how Richard met Alec, "The Death of the Duke," as it says on the tin, and "Red-Cloak," a tale of a duel between Richard and a man who may not have been as he seemed, as well as an afterword by Kushner.
I recommend this book to anyone who enjoys political intrigue, romance between two extremely flawed individuals, and beautiful, evocative writing. I hope you love it as much as I do.
*SPOILER: he's the heir to Duchess Tremontaine.