The Privilege of the Sword by Ellen Kushner (2006)

February 19, 2011 at 11:04 pm (fantasy, LGBT)

I started writing this post back in July.  Wow.

For a person who really enjoyed Swordspoint, I sure took my time acquiring a copy of its sequel.  But it was certainly worth waiting for, both in terms of publication and purchase!

And also very hard to describe.  What historic epoch is this setting trying to echo?  Renaissance Italy, maybe.  Probably.  Except for the part where the names are more English.  Regardless:  A decadent society, dominated by a noble class, with a tradition of dueling by proxy that in the present book is beginning to fade.

Politics.  The Mad Duke Alec Tremontaine whose aims are, clearly, more ethically elevated than those of his peers – so of course he’s mad.  And naturally, he has enemies who seek to destroy him.

Katherine, the niece who’s more easily manipulable than she imagines – yet become less so as her story progresses, as being forced to adopt a masculine pastime (dueling with the sword) and garb (to her own cringing embarrassment, at first) leads to the unfolding of a will and personality that had been comprehensively repressed by a culture that consigns upper-class females to marriage or penury.   (Lower-class females, of course, are relegated to marriage and drudgery, or just to drudgery.)

It’s very hard to reduce a novel this complex to a simple review, particularly without spoiling most of what happens (I don’t like it when reviews do that).  I must say that I believe it’s noticeably different from Swordspoint, yet in some ways seems like a logical extension of it; not surprising considering that a good two decades passed between the writing of them.

I enjoyed it immensely … the baroque politics, the gradual and largely unremarked alteration of Katherine’s personality, the unsparing depiction of the varied deleterious effects of a glorified whoredom on the women of the so-called nobility, and even the tragic yet effective reason that Alec’s lover Richard St Vier doesn’t take over the story.

There are many more characters than the three mentioned here, each worth getting to know, in the vicarious way of fiction.  And of course, the world itself – of which the island of Riverside is only a small part – is very much worth seeing again.

And, once you’ve read this book (but NOT before, I warn you!), don’t neglect to go over to and read the short story “The Man with the Knives,” which finally completes the tale of Alec and Richard.   (It was only published online this past December.)


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