No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Sunday, December 31, 2006

#104: The Privilege of the Sword -- Ellen Kushner

The Privilege of the Sword is sequel to Swordspoint, Ellen Kushner's deliciously mannerist novel that's wholly fantastical, though it's one of the few fantasy novels I can think of where there's no sorcery, no magic, no magecraft.

The Privilege of the Sword is a swashbuckling tale, all the more delightful because its protagonist is Katherine Talbert, teenaged niece of the Mad Duke Tremontaine - Alec Campion, noted for his decadence and his wealth. He's made a deal with Katherine's mother, his sister: a long-standing legal dispute will be resolved, and the Talberts will have their lands and wealth again, if she'll just give him Katherine for six months.

Katherine is not keen on the notion: little does she realise that the Duke has Plans for her that don't involve marriage, or a Season, or pretty frocks. Far from it. Katherine is to learn to use a sword: she's given breeches and boots, jackets and cloaks: she's taught by a master swordsman, and then by a mysterious friend of the Duke's who lives at his country estate. She forges a friendship with the pretty and well-born Artemisia Fitz-Levi - and vows vengeance on the man who's dishonoured her friend. And she falls in love with a book (a swashbuckling romance called The Swordsman Whose Name Was Not Death), and the play based on it, and maybe even with the actress who plays the lead. And ...

Oh, it's all too delicious. Wit, and subterfuge: the Mad Duke in all his sardonic elegance: the beautiful Lucius Perry and his dark secrets: Katherine's growing comprehension of the rules that really govern Riverside, and her own role - noblewoman, swordsman, socialite? - in that society.

Kushner's style is admirably suited to her theme: light and witty, delicately sketching complex relationships. The world she writes of is reminiscent of 18th-century London, packed with scandal and drama and intrigue, peopled with strong and fascinating characters. It's also, notably, a world where sex and gender are expressed rather differently. The Mad Duke's depravities are disapproved of because of their sheer excess, not because he beds men as well as women. Katherine's masculine attire and martial skill raises eyebrows because it's an eccentricity (and because she's the Mad Duke's niece) rather than because it's an affront against femininity. Oh, women are still property in several legal senses: Artemisia's honour is not her own concern, but her father's and her brother's. But it's legitimate for Katherine to come to her aid.

As soon as I'd reread this, I had to surf on over to Amazon and order another copy of Swordspoint (I have at least one, possibly two, but they're in storage) because I absolutely have to reread it and review the past history of some of the characters in Privilege of the Sword.

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