The Privilege of the Sword, by Ellen Kushner

For some reason I thought that the Small Beer Press edition of The Privilege of the Sword by Ellen Kushner was an older, “classic” fantasy novel, reprinted in a pretty edition for the sake of posterity. It turns out that I was wrong – this novel was published for the first time in 2006, in this special hardback edition simultaneously with a paperback release by Bantam Spectra. My misapprehension comes from this being a sequel and indeed a prequel to previous books in the same setting, featuring many of the same characters – so it’s still a fairly new book, but part of a set of books I have heard about for many years prior.

I have not read Swordspoint (1987), the book about swordsman Richard St. Vier – it’s one I bounced off when I tried it a couple of years ago, and now can’t wait to get back to. Neither have I read The Fall of the Kings (2002) by Kushner and Delia Sherman, set after this volume. I have read one short story of Richard’s childhood, published last year, which I loved.

As, indeed, I loved The Privilege of the Sword. This is a masterfully written novel that turns out to be not a fantasy at all, but a swashbuckling historical from another world. There are point where it feels very much like a book between other books – references to events from the past not quite relevant to this story, and at least one major plot twist that disappears into the aether, without revelation or resolution.

This is an epic, complex and rich woman’s coming of age story such as rarely appears in genre fiction. I can think of only Tamora Pierce’s Alanna books for comparison, and that only in a few points of similarity in presenting a female character who learns the sword, and finds a more interesting destiny than the options presented by fairy tales. Katherine is the daughter of a family of country nobles, who have been poor her whole life thanks to the mysterious uncle who has haunted them with frivolous, vengeful lawsuits.

All of a sudden that uncle, otherwise known as the Mad Duke Tremontaine, offers a compromise. He will forgive his sister and restore her family’s fortunes, for one price: his niece is to live in his household, cut off from communications for six months, and during that time she is to be trained in swordsmanship.

The innocent Katherine, whose greatest hopes for herself are to make a good marriage, is thrown into a completely alien word. The Mad Duke surrounds himself with sycophants, actors and prostitutes, and his house parties are dens of debauchery, poetry, wine and duels. Katherine’s hopes of a city season are dashed when she is allowed only to wear men’s clothes as part of her uncle’s odd experiment.

I chose this book to read particularly because I was in search of something with beautiful prose, and I found it. The Privilege of the Sword is full of poetry, romance, wit and, oh yes, swords! The fencing scenes, through Katherine’s training and also her developing experience with the language of duels, are a powerful strength to this book, and a big reason why my honey has been waiting anxiously for me to finish it so he can read it! But there’s so much more.

Rather than follow a conventional romantic narrative, Kushner leads Katherine through a series of romantic moments, sensations and experimental awakenings. This is not a story about one true love, but a story about discovering what it is to be an adult: to flirt, to desire, to observe and to learn what one might be looking for. Katherine has her own romantic moments, and yet the most powerful love stories in the book are those she observes: between her uncle and the swordmaster who left him (or whom he left behind) long ago, and also between a damaged aristocrat-prostitute and the woman he is not allowed to marry.

Katherine also quite firmly learns what love is not. When her friend Artemisia is raped by her fiance, and her father and brother refuse to acknowledge that he did anything wrong for fear of endangering the wedding, only Katherine is willing to play the hero and defend her friend’s honour. This storyline is essential as it shows the importance of the duel in this culture, and also the relative unimportance of women’s honour in comparison to men’s. Katherine’s uncle only meant to give his niece a way to defend herself against unwanted attentions or marriages; apparently by accident he has also put her in a position to think deeply about her own honour, and that of other women.

One of my absolutely favourite things in genre novels is a realistic interaction with cultural products. In this case, a swashbuckling novel by a Lady of Quality, and a play based on that novel, affects the lives of many of the characters. I particularly loved the scenes in which characters see the play and respond to it, though the far more significant use of the story was the way that Katherine and Artemisia used it as a form of code which made their friendship more intimate. Artemisia very much identifies with Stella, the heroine of the novel. Katherine’s discovery that she identifies much more closely with the two men in the novel, Fabian and Tyrian, is a revelation to her, and enables her to look beyond the usual boundaries and restrictions on noblewomen and achieve more than is expected of her.

There are so many layers of subtlety and pleasure in this sensual, whip-smart novel. It feels at times like a sprawling 18th century novel in the style of Dumas or one of the other serialists, but just when you think it might be meandering, it snaps back into sharp focus, and no scene is dull because the characters are just so much pleasure to read. It is a brilliant, beautiful feminist swashbuckler, and what library doesn’t need one of those? This is a novel that I will return to again and again, and I am so glad not only to have an excellent copy of it (sturdy hardback, good for lending out) but also to have two others in the same word, still to discover.