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The Privilege of the Sword
Ellen Kushner
Bantam Spectra, 400 pages

The Privilege of the Sword
Ellen Kushner
Two of Ellen Kushner's novels include Swordspoint and Thomas the Rhymer, which won both a World Fantasy Award and a Mythopoeic Award for best novel of 1990.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: The Fall of the Kings
SF Site Review: The Horns of Elfland

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Sherwood Smith

Though The Privilege of the Sword takes place some years after Swordspoint, readers unfamiliar with it (and likewise unfamiliar with co-authored The Fall of the Kings, which is historically much further removed) can read this one first with no confusion or diminishment of pleasure. One doesn't need to know the characters' back (or forward) history; as the young protagonist encounters them, we do too, through her descriptions both trenchant and humane. (Though it must be said certain lines and situations inevitably will resonate more with readers familiar with the previous Riverside stories.)

Ellen Kushner begins with sixteen-year-old Katherine Talbert, whose uncle, the Mad Duke Tremontaine, offers, out of nowhere, to cancel all debts and even to help the family out of poverty, if Katherine consents to live with him in the city (and eventually in the underworld area called Riverside, which serves as synecdoche for the city) for six months and train with the sword. Of course she's going to take the offer -- despite the fact that young ladies do not have anything to do with swords. Here are a couple of lines from the opening paragraph, and what swashbuckler among us can resist?

...This was before I had ever been to the city. I had never been in a duel, or held a sword myself. I had never kissed anyone, or had anyone try to kill me, or worn a velvet cloak.
And then, for the readers who know the story, that paragraph finishes:
I had certainly never met my uncle the Mad Duke. Once I met him, much was explained.
(Nice bit of foreshadowing for the new reader -- and a classic snarf moment for the rest of us.)

Katherine does indeed learn to handle a sword. But you absolutely cannot predict what is going to happen while she goes about it. Meanwhile Katherine's first-person storyline interweaves with other points of view to make an increasingly edgy, absorbing, sometimes funny, sometimes poignant whole that presents a spectacular tapestry of a finish. There just isn't a dropped stitch anywhere: the characters are complex, subtle, and vivid, the humor a splash of light amid plenty of tense moments, introspective ones, sad ones, and scenes with keen, even painful tenderness. As Katherine learns to master her weapons (not just steel but wit) we learn more about the Mad Duke and his household -- and about some other denizens of the city and in Riverside, people of high and low rank.

Two observations of things that particularly impressed me: one, the true-to-life 'secret' lives of school girls who are mostly shut away from the world for their own good. These girls read and reread romantic novels in order to decode the world -- novels chosen in hopes that the glorious landscape, passionate heroes (especially heroic villains) and noble emotions found there will indeed prove to be what the girls encounter when at last given the chance to take their place in the world. Their language is a private language, the characters in the romances so well known, so endlessly discussed, they prance alongside the realtime story as dream shades. This so resonated with my own teen experience, when encountering others who adored The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and Lord of the Rings and Georgette Heyer and Star Trek; what's more, this phenomenon resonates right back through literary letters and fiction clear to Charlotte Lennox who, in the 1750s, gave us The Female Quixote about a girl who raised herself on romance. As well as Jane Austen's far more fun iteration of the same plot in Northanger Abbey.

The second thing that impressed me was how, as the young people encountered the worst aspects of the world -- and indeed did not always escape them -- they could observe, comprehend, and still retain their own integrity. How very refreshing -- and how rare, unfortunately, in far too much fiction.

The edition I read is the new mass-market edition, which not only includes some minor corrections, but the reinstatement of a crucial couple of lines inadvertently left out of the 2006 editions, which make one of the ending scenes just that much more comprehensible and rewarding.

Copyright © 2007 Sherwood Smith

Sherwood Smith is a writer by vocation and reader by avocation. Her webpage is at

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