Review Rerun: The Privilege of the Sword by Ellen Kushner
I must recommend the audiobook, too. It moved me to tears--something no other audiobook has managed to do.
Oh, and I strongly encourage you to check out this fan-made alternate cover art. It's bloody brilliant.
This review first appeared on March 9th, 2009.
Title: THE PRIVILEGE OF THE SWORD
Author: Ellen Kushner
Series: chronologically, this is the second Riverside book; however, it was the third to be published.
Publisher: Bantam Spectra, a division of Random house
Publication Year: 2006
Status: keeper, keeper, keeper!
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I love this book with an unholy passion.
Regular visitors to Stella Matutina will doubtless have noticed that I am Picky with a capital P. I like an awful lot, but I don’t love very much. I’m conservative with my star ratings; I dither over giving a book 4 stars (I-love-it) instead of 3.5 (I-really-like-it), and I rarely hand out 4.5s or 5s. And I’m even stricter when it comes to upgrades. Most of my reread ratings hold steady, while the rest go down. Very, very few warrant a (small) upgrade. I’ll give ‘em half a star more, maybe, or perhaps I’ll decide that a 3 (I-like-it) is more like a 3.5.
When I first read THE PRIVILEGE OF THE SWORD, I thought it was wonderful. I wished it were fully twice as long. But as good as it was, I considered it the least of the Riverside books. I gave it 4 stars, compared to the 4.5s I awarded SWORDSPOINT and THE FALL OF THE KINGS.
I don’t know what the hell I was thinking. This is a 5-star book if ever there was one.
The story follows fifteen-year-old Katherine, whose mad uncle offers to erase her family’s crippling debt if she’ll come to the city to train as a swordsman. Katherine figures she’s in for an easy time of it. She’ll have to wave a sword around, sure, but she’ll get a Season in the city and she’ll help her beloved mother. Her uncle, however, has other plans. Katherine attends intense training sessions instead of fashionable parties, and she wears mens’ suits instead of elegant gowns. She's in over her head, and she'll need to think on her feet if she’s to adjust to this strange new world.
And of course, Katherine’s not alone in this. She’s at the centre of the story, sure, but there are scads and scads of subplots. Those of you who’ve read SWORDSPOINT will already know her uncle, the Duke, who has his own stake in the game. Marcus, the Duke's personal attendant, forms a close bond with Katherine. Artemisia, a young noblewoman who meets Katherine at one of the Duke’s scandalous parties, finds herself at odds with society in the wake of a horrific encounter. Artemisia's cousin, Lucius, provides Katherine and Marcus with a mystery to unravel as he rebels against society in his own way. And they’re joined by a whole host of mathematicians, scholars, whores, actors, swordsmen and nobles, who populate both colourful Riverside and the Hill above it.
God. I love this book so much that I don’t even know where to start. I could easily ramble on for ages and ages about how much I love every single little thing about it, but y’all would surely prefer a thoughtful, reasoned response to the text. You want to know what’s so great about it so you can judge whether or not you should rush out and buy yourself a copy.
(You should rush out and buy yourself a copy. That’s not up for debate. I do want to give you some reasons, though, so we can all feel better about the decision.)
Katherine, our fantastic heroine, seems a solid place to begin. She's awesome, y'all, and Kushner does some wonderful things with her POV. Katherine's first person narrative weaves through everyone else's third. Her tense is always consistent, so we know exactly how she stands in relation to the rest of the text--a detail that delights me so much that I'm willing to overlook the lack of context for the mix of firsst person and third. (I suggest you do the same. The book is that awesome.) Katherine is likeable and easy to relate to throughout, and her emotional journey is perfection itself. She changes and grows as the story barrels along, and yet she remains very much herself. I love her, I love her, I love her!
The secondary characters, (if I dare call them that; as I said, their own stories run right alongside Katherine’s), are equally wonderful. I love Marcus, I love Artemisia, I love Lucius, and the Duke breaks my heart into dozens of itty bitty pieces. I miss them all terribly now that the book is over.
I also love the themes Kushner deals with here. There’s tons about society and gender and personal growth. Katherine is far from the only character with a stunning emotional journey. Every single one of them works through some major league shit. They begin with one idea of how they fit into society; as the story plays out, they’re forced to reevaluate their assumptions. Artemisia, in particular, comes to some difficult realizations about her role as a noblewoman.
And there's book-love!!!! Katherine and Artemisia are both obsessed with a novel called THE SWORDSMAN WHOSE NAME IS NOT DEATH, endowing the text with hardcore shades of NORTHANGER ABBEY. Kushner perfectly captures the feel of being totally obsessed with your favourite book. The frequent rereadings, the tendency to contrast real life with the book, their responses to a theatrical production based on the text, and the sheer drama of it all are present and accounted for. If you’ve ever fallen head over heels in love with a book, you’ll be able to relate.
And then there are all the little, personal things I responded to. I know this (probably) won’t apply to you, but I have a mad uncle of my own. (He, like the Duke, isn’t really mad. He just likes people to think he is.) When I was very small, he decided that I had a promising circus career ahead of me and began training me to take my place amongst the tumblers. Alas, we didn't get very far; I was only three or four, and thus easily distracted. (I did retain those tumbling skills for a good decade, though.) When I got a little older, he and I would invent elaborate stories and enact them for strangers. When I was fifteen or sixteen, I spent an afternoon being Jennifer, his daughter who lived in a Canadian compound in India because it was much cheaper to raise a child over there. I was visiting for the week. People who didn't know him actually believed us.
Another personal thing: I have a friend with whom I discuss both mathematics and weird sex. Portions of this book really reminded me of him. (I’m thinking in particular of the upside down naked people Katherine encounters in the Riverside house.)
And the theatre! Surely y’all remember my theatrical bias? I love nothing more than a book that references the theatre. Love it, love it, love it. I mean, THE PRIVILEGE OF THE SWORD is so wonderful that I'd have loved it to bits even without the plays and the actors and all that jazz, but a little bit of theatre never hurts.
I suppose I ought to tell you what’s wrong with the book, too. Maybe the mix of first person and third will jar you out of the story. Maybe you’ll think the Duke’s plot undercuts Katherine’s. Perhaps you’ll find the ending a little abrupt. I’ve heard criticism on all counts, but I’m so enamored of the bloody thing that I don’t give a fig. The mix of first person and third works just fine for me. I was glad to pick up the Duke’s story again. The ending is quick, but it jives with what's come before. The whole thing is fantastic from start to finish, and I am bitterly sorry I can’t include it on my 2009 Top 5 list. If it weren’t a reread, it’d be a shoe-in.
I cannot recommend this book highly enough. As Artemisia’s friend Lydia says of the fictional book within a book, "It is full of great and noble truths of the heart. And swordfights." What could be better?
Correct answer: nothing.
I will say, though, that it’s probably best if you read SWORDSPOINT first so you get the most out of everything that goes down with the Duke. You might be able to get by without it, but I wouldn’t want to swear to that. I’d also recommend reading this ahead of THE FALL OF THE KINGS, even though the other book was published first and can be read as a standalone. The characters in TFotK are all aware of and reference what goes down in TPotS, and you’ll run into some spoilers if you read ‘em in publication order.
5 stars - loved it to the point of incoherence and/or verbosity
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