Saturday, July 7, 2012

Book Review: Privilege of the Sword by Ellen Kushner

The Privilege of the Sword by Ellen Kushner is one of those books that keeps being mentioned everywhere, and I'm very glad that I finally read it. The writing was truly excellent and the characters were fascinating. Our heroine, Katherine, is 15 years old and bisexual, like most of the people she meets.

It is a 'next generation' sequel to Swordspoint and is set before The Fall of the Kings, with a lot of fascinating backstory and personal history just oozing out of every character Katherine meets. You can certainly read it on its own merits, though (and there's a quick review of Swordspoint at the end of this review).

 It is set in what is basically a historical renaissance Venice style city, edging into Regency, sharply divided between Nobles and the poor of Riverside. The book itself falls neatly into the 'Fantasy of Manners' category; plenty of Society, corruption, a rigid class system and politics and everyone pretending to be polite in public. There is a rigidly structured and complicated political balance, with nobles settling offences through duels. In most cases, the duel is between two swordsmen, and considered final.

It falls into the fantasy category because, apart from the setting being fictional, magic does, or did, exist in this world; The Fall of the Kings covered it in more detail (along with a gay love affair, no women here). Basically, the line and role of Kings was invested with some kind of powerful, very real, magic. The kings have since been overthrown, and their magic receives only a very passing mention.

The Duke Tremontaine considers himself responsible for Riverside, a place he once wandered hungry and semi-anonymously in, causing trouble with his lover. The madcap, selfish, sideways Alec is an enchanting and frustrating figure; you suspect that he's mostly benevolent and enlightened, and frustrated by everyone around him, but then he does something senseless for the fun of it. He does appear to be slightly mad, and - based on some family history that came out during the book - had a very abusive childhood. He reminded me quite strongly, in his erraticness, brilliance, the repugnance he inspired in others, the loyalty he inspires in his friends and followers, his position and his constant meddling, of Miles Vorkosigan from Lois McMaster Bujold's fantasy science fiction series, though they were not wholly identical. Miles is generally a much nicer and somewhat smarter person.

Our heroine, Katherine, is summoned by her capricious uncle, who has decided that he wants a bodyguard he can trust (and who better than dependent kin), and is apparently motivated by a disregard for 'proper' futures in society, and to ensure she can defend herself and is never forced into marriage the way his sister was (something that has obviously haunted him).

Katherine is initially an eminently practical girl about household matters, who has a head stuffed full of Society, who plans mainly to marry well. While initially completely thrown by her uncle, she copes quite well after the initial humiliation and despair. She's fifteen when her uncle summons her, and sixteen by the end of the story. Once she finds her feet, she takes to the sword and her new clothes well, although never without a few qualms, and becomes a curious, bold, kind, and rather reckless ... well, teenager.

The Duke also decides that it's time to let his sister have some of her money back after years of tying it up in lawsuits (partly out of vindictiveness for the man he believed that she was forced to marry, partly - reading between the lines here - to keep some money safe for her that her husband couldn't touch. That, and Katherine's mother seems a bit flighty and impractical. It was returned in whole, after his death, with significant interest). But he makes it the price for Katherine's service and obedience to his conditions.

The storyline itself is slightly rambling; there is a story, but it is more about the characters and all the little subplots and histories. Mostly we follow Katherine as she is shunted off to trainers, or left to herself, and finally becomes part of the household, as well as catching glimpses of the Duke's intrigues and enemies, and checking in on the flirting and courting and partying of Artemesia.

Artemesia's arc follows her airheaded rise through Society as she dances through her Season, encouraged by family and friends. It is quite interesting how dramatically Katherine's mindset changes after she leaves her mother's home and her horizon is suddenly shaken upside down and widened. Artemesia is basically what Katherine wanted to be. Pretty and popular and all about making a good match, and a mind so closeted by her upbringing that she cannot conceive of doing otherwise. While I thought it was just a way of keeping tabs on Artemesia, it turned into an actual story of its own, with endless parties and primping suddenly turning into pain and drama [Rape warning], while everyone around her pressured her to play along again.


 For general sexual mores and debauchery, while we never get explicit, there is certainly a lot of sex and innuendo, and some amusingly raunchy puns. It also appears that 'everyone is bisexual' by default. Although I get the impression that a lot of people consider that not to be entirely proper, nobody pretends that it doesn't happen. While it's obvious from the start that the Duke is flamboyantly, utterly debauched and gay, with frequent dabbles into orgies and women, most of the other same sex hints could pass for the fancy roundabout talk of courtly love, and reading too much into subtext and cross dressing humour, until the second half of the book.

Once Katherine starts exploring her new world, we, and she, discovers that men are sleeping with each other everywhere, and that women are pretty attractive too. There are a few particular moments worth mentioning:

  • The Black Rose is a prominent actress who also acts as spy and lover for the Duke. Katherine sees her kissing another actress, who was playing a man, and felt her first rush of desire (along with some very silly panicking about growing a penis, which she felt quite foolish about later). She ends up with a crush on the Black Rose throughout the rest of the book.
  • The Black Rose herself mentions taking ladies as lovers from her audience more than once; even planning a new performance with an eye to encouraging as many offers as possible for her to choose from.
  • Katherine and Marcus, the servant/semi-adopted son of the Duke and Katherine's only close friend in age, sneak into a high class brothel and Katherine is extremely taken with the wide variety of flesh, male and female, she gets to see (though the focus is more on the plot than lingering descriptions of what she is looking at).
  • Katherine plays the hero for the stricken Artemisia, succouring her and fighting for her honour. This is mostly a subtextual relationship; it's possible there is an attraction between them, but it could as easily be two girls becoming friends and the natural interaction of Bold Hero and Fainting Maiden.
  • However, the young Katherine falls fairly hard for her friend Marcus, and there's an  experimental make out session or two; I've no idea where that went; our lead was still relatively young, by modern standards.
The sexual politics and feminist aspects were impressively handled, at least when compared to the majority of fantasy and historical fiction. When Artermisia is raped, the story neatly points out the victim blaming that occurs, the double standards for men and women, and the impact on the lady, as her family try and pretend it didn't happen, and continues this rather than just shoving it under a rug once the point was made. The arranged marriage aspect (or at least, 'very compulsory marriage' with a little bit of choice as to whom) and the lack of future for most women outside that was a strong theme throughout the book. And amazingly, while Katherine does feel attraction, and crushes, they are not the driving force of any of her actions, nor a solution to anything.

In Conclusion

 While Katherine was nominally the main character, there were several other interesting people who got plenty of plot time, but not quite enough. In some ways, it did feel as if the book was also written to wrap up the Duke's story, which was frustrating; enough of him was shown to us to fascinate us, and he frequently outshines Katherine's story - which is almost always about him anyway! - even to stealing the final climax of the book, and then he's just tidied away. I was ultimately disappointed in the ending; it seemed rushed and not entirely workable, and while it was consistent with the Duke's opinions and erraticness, we were given the impression that he was supposed to be smart and good at manipulating situations. I would have liked to have read more about the aftermath and how Katherine settled into her life.

I would happily hand this to a teenager, partly because they would identify with the lead, and partly because, sexual as it gets, most of it is easy to miss if you aren't looking for it (based on the frequently cited phenomena, and my own experience, of simply passing on the stuff you don't yet understand properly. It's amazing how much sex is in some of the books I read in my early teens and only discovered when I reread them as an adult).

Interestingly, the focus was very personal; while the bad guy was really bad, you came away knowing that there weren't really many clearly cut heroes and villains, and they were all tied together in complicated knots anyway. The plot only really affected the players as well, there were no kingdoms or long lasting change, or even a particularly long running saga.

The writing, however, was very good. It was highly enjoyable to read, making up for a weak plot. This was a book that could have been twice as long, and I'd have enjoyed it just as much. Still, I felt there could have been more, more content, more plot, more background - though actually going back and reading the first book would probably help with that! It would probably turn into one of those dense, confusing, labyrinthine books with enormous casts, though. And much as I enjoy those, this is an easier book to read than that.

 Buying the Book

The Privilege of the Sword is not yet available on Kindle, but can be ordered in new & secondhand paperback from Amazon here, and for the Kindle here.

It was also released on Audiobook in 2012, voiced by Ellen Kushner and Barbara Rosenblat - with guest voices Neil Gaiman and Felicia Day (also available via Amazon).

A quick review of Swordspoint

Following Alec and his beloved master swordsman (both somewhat sociopathic, and they work together really well, which isn't that obvious from Privilege) around the poor district of Riverside, Swordspoint is a much longer, stronger version of The Privilege of the Sword as far as the politics, plot and intrigue are concerned. We get a much better grounding in the city and society, as we are coming from the perspective of locals, not a naive newcomer and also see some interesting history from a dozen or so years before, and (in the 2nd edition) get some bonus short stories.

We do not get much in the way of women loving women, though one of the short stories makes a point of showing how little chance they get to play a role in high society or sneak away to meet lovers, so the author is conscious of it (and it does feels as if Privilege was written to balance that out). We get a lot of gay, bisexual and heterosexual men; the difference being that they are free of the double standards and are able to wander freely into women's/men's bedchambers, while women aren't.

I'd actually recommend reading The Privilege of the Sword first - you miss out on some of the history, but you are at least guaranteed some bi/lesbian content and it's an easier book to get through, though actually a bit more mature in places (it has less ongoing sex and courtship, but gets more blatant about it). If you enjoy it, then grab Swordspoint too.

Also See:

While I haven't actually read them yet, this series seems quite similar the Kushiel series by Jacqueline Carey, (starting with Kushiel's Dart) due the sexual mores, historical fantasy setting, political intrigue and 'everyone is bisexual' trope. Also the name thing - Kushner/Kushiel! Unfortunately, the main character sleeps mainly with men; for a much greater amount of lesbian-bisexual action, check out Naamah's Kiss, which is set later in the same world and was shortlisted for the 2010 Gaylactic Spectrum Best Novel. Be warned that it's apparently nowhere near as good as the original 'Kushiel' series, though).

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