THE PRIVILEGE OF THE SWORD by Ellen Kushner
Spectra, July 2006, 400 pgs, ISBN: 0553382683, Trade Paperback, $14.00
This review has been a long time coming. For a while I sat around and wondered why on earth I couldn’t seem to write it. I had planned to type it as soon as I finished the novel. I didn’t want to forget a single thing I’d read. But as they often do, circumstances decided that I wouldn’t get the chance.
As it happens, the only reason I was able to finish The Privilege of the Sword with the speed I did was because I caught a sick bug. I spent three days in bed and, aside from my cats, this novel was my only bed mate. And it was almost worth being sick to have the chance to cuddle in bed with a book from morning till night. You don’t get to do that everyday, not when you work full time.
The problem, however, is that I was still sick when I got finished and for several days after. I couldn’t put together a complex thought over what I wanted for dinner, never mind type a halfway serious review of the story I’d read.
Three months later, I still wanted to write the review. It came to me that, perhaps, I should adopt a more casual style for this one in order to get it out. My normal reviewing practices just weren’t cutting it, and I would rather write something a bit rambling than nothing at all. After all, it’s my review journal. I can do what I want. Can’t I?
Anwyay, this is more a stream of consciousness ramble, at this point, but I do my best.
I remember that, while reading Swordspoint in 2004, I was, at times, uncertain about whether or not I liked Ellen Kushner’s style. You can imagine what kind of reactions I got from Kushner devotees when I would make comments in that vein. And, while these people weren’t really close friends of mine, they were still people whose opinions I respected. We had similar tastes, so why couldn’t I find the same all-encompassing love for Swordspoint that they had? I knew I liked her characters and I liked her settings, but sometimes the writing and the direction of the plot would get away from me. Particular phrases would make me raise an eyebrow, and I just couldn’t fall into the book completely.
To be fair I was under a lot of stress at the time, not to mention doing a grad project that was kicking my butt. How I managed to read at all is a subject for debate. In fact, three years later, I can’t help but want to go back and reread Swordspoint with a fresh outlook. I mean, by the time I finished that novel, I was in love with Alec Campion and all of his eccentric ways (Eccentric? Is that really the best word to describe him?). The ending was probably one of my favorite parts of the novel, and when it was over, I couldn’t wait to read the short stories that were provided in the back of the book. Suddenly I found that I did have the same things in common with the Kushner fans, and we spent quite a while going back and forth over the story and its characters.
So, when I learned that she’d released The Privilege of the Sword, a story set in the same universe with a few of the same characters (most notably Alec Campion and Richard St. Vier), I wondered how I could have possibly missed it. What a negligent fan I was to let six months go by without ever noticing that. It was, sadly, impossible to find at the local bookstores (which would explain why I hadn’t known about it), and I couldn’t have bought it anyway what with it being a trade paperback that wouldn’t have matched my copy of Swordspoint (yes, I’m one of those collectors), so I found myself relying on an unexpected but fortunate acquisition from the local library (until such time as the mmp is released, anyway).
Initially I was suspicious of the main character, being that she was a young female. I’ve encountered so many unfortunate situations regarding female fantasy protagonists (and so many handled by female authors, would you believe it?) that I tend to avoid them. But I had faith in Ellen Kushner’s characters, and it just happens that Katherine became one of my favorites throughout the course of the novel.
Her character is delightfully dynamic. She neither gives in wholeheartedly to her uncle’s plans nor does she possess so much stubbornness that she refuses to change. Watching her grow and learn to interact with the people around her, from her uncle himself, to Marcus and Artemesia Fitz-Levi, is quite a ride. And, despite what she might think of her uncle to begin with, she is a fine addition to her somewhat off-kilter family in her swordsman’s clothes and with a certain disregard for societal norms.
In addition to Katherine’s situation, there are a number of other plot points that all weave into the main story, affecting Katherine’s life either outright or because it affects the Duke Tremontaine. Artemesia Fitz-Levi, whom Katherine meets at the beginning of her arrival in the city, has fallen into a problem concerning the former Crescent Chancellor, Lord Ferrus. Ferrus, as usual, is having some kind of power struggle with Tremontaine House, and this all culminates into an issue of slighted honor where Katherine is concerned (and I don’t think anyone could blame her).
A lot of readers will probably wonder, early on: whatever happened to Richard St. Vier? Well, rest assured that this question is answered, though it might not be the explanation you were expecting. In the interests of not spoiling anyone, I won’t say anything further. It’s much more interesting to find out as it happens.
In terms of the writing style, which I had found so befuddling when I first read a Kushner book, I came to realize in The Privilege of the Sword that it was something I appreciated. Her writing is sparse, not prone to over-describing or including details that aren’t particularly important. Or, perhaps, a better word would be subtle. Kushner’s writing could definitely be described as subtle, particularly in some of her dialogue scenes. And while some authors might fail to present their meaning by being so selective, Kushner has no such problem. In fact, some scenes were easier to imagine with vivid detail than they might have been had the prose been overwrought.
In summary, I enjoyed The Privilege of the Sword very much, and I would definitely recommend it to most, especially anyone who has a penchant for stories with a period flavor. Of course, I would suggest reading Swordspoint prior to, this one in order to know where some of the characters are coming from.