“Whatever the duke means to do with her, it can’t be anything decent.”
The Privilege of the Sword is Ellen Kushner’s sequel to her novel Swordspoint which was about the doings of the high and low societies in her fictional town of Riverside. The main characters of that novel were the nobleman Alec Tremontaine, a student, and his lover, the famous swordsman Richard St. Vier. You don’t need to read Swordspoint before reading The Privilege of the Sword, but it will probably be more enjoyable if you do because you’ll have some background on most of the characters.
Now Alec is known as the Mad Duke Tremontaine. He spends some of his time in his mansion outside the city, but he really prefers to reside in his house in Riverside where the common people live. The Mad Duke is known for being rapacious and decadent. Yet when he asks his estranged sister to send her 15-year-old daughter Katherine to him, Katherine must go because Alec controls the family fortune.
When Katherine goes to live with her mad uncle, she envisions beautiful new gowns, exciting balls, and gallant suitors. And indeed that’s probably what she would have gotten if this story hadn’t been written by Ellen Kushner. A sweet romantic fantasy isn’t what Kushner had in mind, however (though there is sweetness and romance). Instead, the Mad Duke dresses Katherine like a boy and makes her take swordfighting lessons. She hates this at first, but later she learns that her skills are quite useful for carrying out her romantic schemes. Even later it becomes clear that there’s a method to her uncle’s madness.
Katherine is a delightful character. At the beginning she’s a sweet romantic girl with starry visions and high hopes, but her innocence is challenged when she joins the lascivious duke’s household. She’s forced to grow over the course of the novel and she learns about friendship, honor, and her own (and other people’s) sexuality. Katherine’s friendship with Marcus, a boy who works for the duke, is sweet. However, her friendship with the noblewoman Artemesia, which drives the plot in the second half of the novel, is hard to believe in since two girls hardly know each other. I did like, however, how they were bound together by the romantic admiration for the same book.
Alec is even more unlikeable in The Privilege of the Sword than he was in Swordspoint, but Kushner provides us with more of his backstory in this novel and he at least becomes a little more sympathetic. By the end I had decided that maybe I liked him after all. He has no respect for the rules of his society and it’s hard not to admire him for that. Readers of Swordspoint will also be interested to see what became of the famous swordsman Richard St. Vier.
The plot of The Privilege of the Sword is “lite” and a bit muddled. I found it somewhat dull at first, but it picks up eventually when the political intrigue starts and there’s a mystery for Katherine and Marcus to solve. The story isn’t particularly memorable, but it’s mostly amusing, unpredictable, and mercifully avoids all fantasy clichés. Most notably, it examines gender and sexuality issues in a way that has so far been unusual in fantasy literature. (Though I hesitate to call this novel a fantasy since its only fantastical element is the totally made-up setting.) Most of the characters are exploring their sexuality (which is both homosexual and heterosexual and gets rather decadent in parts) and this, in my opinion, affects the plot negatively. In other words, it could be argued that the book is more about sex than it is about story.
I listened to the audio version of The Privilege of the Sword which was produced by Neil Gaiman Presents and expertly narrated by Ellen Kushner and a full cast. Neil Gaiman and actress Felicia Day make vocal appearances. If you plan to read The Privilege of the Sword, you should consider the audiobook.