Nov 11 2008 10:22am

Duels and Dialogue and Depth: Ellen Kushner’s The Privilege of the Sword

The Privilege of the Sword came out in 2006, but in terms of how many times I’ve read it, it’s almost equal with Swordspoint. I’ll happily admit that it isn’t as original or as startling, but I’m just a pushover for stories about girls learning to be powerful against a background of different history.

Again, it’s a personal story with small stakes; again, there’s no magic; again, there are plenty of flashing blades and swirling cloaks. Fifteen-year-old Katherine comes to the City at the whim of her uncle, the Mad Duke Tremontaine, Alec from Swordpoint. He wants her to be trained as a swordsman, although this is not something properly brought up young ladies do at all. To begin with, she just wants pretty dresses and a Season, but then she discovers the realities of Society. The story takes six months, but in that time and on the page in front of us, Katherine grows up.

If I’d had this book when I was twelve, I’d have loved it with the burning power of supernovas, and even now I find it completely irresistable. It’s such terrific fun. It’s delightful. It has everything. There’s a melodramatic book (and a play adaptation) called The Swordsman Whose Name Was Not Death, which has enthusiastic fans. There are morning calls and drawn blades and splendid matches.

Beneath that there’s a deeper layer of reality. I don’t mean just that the city has (since Swordspoint) developed a middle class, that there are layers between the nobles and the lowlives of Riverside, though it’s definitely nice to see that it has. It’s the glimpse of the reality of what it would mean to make a splendid match, the deeper questioning of what honour is, and whether women have it. Then there’s the wonderful control of prose, the way Katherine slips from the formal language of her favourite novel to teenage informality, without ever slipping out of the world she belongs to. Great characters, beautiful prose, and swashbuckling combined with depth —I just uncritically adore this book.

I think you probably have to have read Swordspoint to appreciate it fully, though it wouldn’t have taken much to make it stand alone.

The Privilege of the Sword is set fifteen years after Swordspoint, and at first it seems to undo Swordspoint’s ending. Swordspoint ends with Alec turning his back on his Tremontaine heritage and returning to Richard in Riverside. Fifteen years later, he’s the Duke Tremontaine and Richard is (at first) nowhere in sight. It ends with Alec, once again, turning his back on his heritage and going off with Richard. Kushner therefore tries to pull off the same ending twice, which works, but barely. Having Alec and Richard hold the place they do in The Privilege of the Sword unbalances the book’s emotional arc, which is all to do with Katherine learning the sword, the city, and herself. In the hands of a lesser writer, it would have entirely disintegrated. The first time I read it I wasn’t sure at all about the ending. It left me spluttering “What? What?” I’ve got used to it now, and have come to appreciate it. The Privilege of the Sword gains a great deal from being in the same world and having the depth of history, and the world itself has matured as a character, but when you have larger-than-life characters like Richard and Alec and they’re not the centre of the narrative, they’re almost bound to draw it off balance.

I do love it though.

piaw na
1. piaw
I found Privilege disappointing after Swordspoint. Comparing them back to back, I felt that the characters settled for status quo too easily. (Full review on my blog: http://piaw.blogspot.com/2007/08/review-privilege-of-sword.html)
Iain Scott
2. iopgod
I came to Privilege before Swordspoint, and on a recomendation. I dont recall finding anything particularly confusing, though I see that one might. I think I prefer Privilege... though that might be because I have reread it more often and more frequently than Swordspoint.

Hmmm. I wonder where my copy of Swordspoint has got lost to??
3. EllenKushner
Wow, Jo - I never thought of it that way before - but of course, you're right! I've always been aware that the ending of Swordspoint is a deliberate perversity, going against the Rule of Writing ("your characters and their situation must change"): instead, both characters go to some trouble to ensure that things do not change, and they're right back where they were at the beginning, fish and all.

However, it hadn't occurred to me that the same thing repeats itself in TPOTS - and of course, it does! Clever you. The way I see it, Alec tries the second option for about 20 years - decides he doesn't like it, and goes back (as far as he can - and, as Delia points out, with more money) to Swordspoint.

So that's interesting.

Thanks for your smart and always-illuminating reads of my work; it's always an honor.
4. jenphalian
So interesting! I saw the endings of the two books as complementing each other. Being Tremontaine doesn't fit for Alec, he and the city are too much at odds. Katherine, just as much at odds socially and politically, smooths over her own conflicts with the city with grace, which is just exactly what manners are for. So when Alec goes back, turning his back on his heritage for the second time, he's finally doing it right, so that everyone is improved - again, just what manners are for.

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