Ellen Kushner – The Privilege of the Sword
Length: 378 pages
Started: 08 March 2014
Finished: 20 March 2014
Where did it come from? Purchased used on Amazon.
Why do I have it? I enjoyed the world of Swordspoint enough to want to go back.
How long has it been on my TBR pile? Since 19 September 2013.
Katherine thought she
was going to the city
for balls, not fencing.
Summary: Katherine’s family is well-bred but poor, and entangled in some complicated legal proceedings. When Katherine’s uncle, the Duke, requests that Katherine come live with him in the city, there’s really no way her family can refuse. But her uncle, Alec Campion, isn’t called the Mad Duke Tremontaine for nothing, and he’s decided to have his niece trained in the art of swordplay. Katherine, who was prepared for society and balls and meeting eligible suitors, chafes under the Duke’s requirements, but the longer she lives in the Duke’s house, the more she realizes that the city has more to it than she was expecting… and her Uncle seems to be involved in most of the secret and clandestine parts.
Review: I really enjoyed this book, much as I suspected I would. I loved the world of Riverside and the characters of Swordspoint, but I found the audio production really distracting. In paper, though, with nothing to get in my way, I had a much easier time. This book (like Swordspoint) is this interesting blend of swordplay and chivalry and political intrigue and the criminal underworld and high society, kind of a blend of the worlds (if not the styles) of Dumas and Austen and Dickens, all smooshed together. It’s fantasy, but apart from a few oblique references to magic being used in the old days, it’s much more historical fantasy (although drawing from a mishmash of periods) than anything else.
Actually, let’s talk about the oblique references to the old days a bit, particularly in reference to Kushner’s worldbuilding. I’m in a little bit of a conundrum with this book, as I can’t quite figure out how Kushner manages to do her worldbuilding. It’s very subtle – about the far end of the spectrum from info-dumping – so subtle, in fact, that sometimes I wasn’t quite clear on how various political and societal systems worked, or whether I’d missed some crucial detail. That should have really bothered me, but at the same time that some of the “structural” worldbuilding was a little sparse, the cultural/environmental worldbuilding was very vivid – you can feel the difference going from Riverside to the Hill, see the dark corners and gilded furniture and grimy alleys and fancy fencing salons. And as a result, even if I occasionally felt a little lost, I still found it really easy to sink into Kushner’s world.
The characterizations are done equally subtly. Kushner expects you to be paying attention – a lot of the emotional importance of some scenes is meant to be inferred… since it’s certainly not explained. As an example: Alec sends Katherine to stay at his house in the country, and train with the odd, reclusive man that lives there. I don’t think that that character is ever named outright – or at least not until much, much later – but there were parts of that section of the book that were absolutely emotionally devastating, if you knew. (And that part I did catch, and it broke my heart.) Even some of the secondary/tertiary characters were developed well enough to be intensely sympathetic – Marcus coming to terms with his past particularly touched me.
Other things I loved about this book was its nonchalant handling of bi- or fluid sexuality (reminiscent of Sing the Four Quarters), and its touches of humor amid the swashbuckling and pathos (Alec can be a snarky, snarky man when he wants to). Overall, I had a lot of fun with it, even when it occasionally tore my heart out, and will definitely be on the lookout for the third book. 4 out of 5 stars.
Recommendation: The Privilege of the Sword would work okay as a standalone, but the impact of some of what I thought were its best moments relied on having read Swordspoint first. These books remind me most of Galen Beckett’s The Magicians and Mrs. Quent, but I think they’d be enjoyable for anyone who likes a healthy mix of swashbuckling and (seemingly) polite society.
First Lines: No one sends for a niece they’ve never seen before just to annoy her family and ruin her life. That, at least, is what I thought. This was before I had ever been to the city. I had never been in a duel, or held a sword myself. I had never kissed anyone, or had anyone try to kill me, or worn a velvet cloak. I had certainly never met my uncle the Mad Duke. Once I met him, much was explained.
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