Time for another favourite book! This time we dive into the charming subgenre of Fantasy of Manners, also known as Mannerpunk – and my favourite of all fantasy subgenres, to tell the truth.
ELLEN KUSHNER: PRIVILEGE OF THE SWORD
Published: Bantam Spectra 2006
Series: Riverside (third published, second chronologically)
Welcome to Riverside, where the aristocratic and the ambitious battle for power in the city’s ballrooms, brothels, and boudoirs. Into this world walks Katherine, a well-bred country girl versed in the rules of conventional society. Her mistake is thinking they apply. For Katherine’s host and uncle, Alec Campion, a.k.a. the Mad Duke Tremontaine, is in charge here – and to him, rules are made to be broken.
When Alec decides it would be more amusing for his niece to learn swordplay than to follow the usual path to marriage, her world changes forever. Blade in hand, it’s up to Katherine to navigate a maze of secrets and scoundrels – and to gain the self-discovery that comes to those who master… THE PRIVILEGE OF THE SWORD.
Ellen Kushner was a guest of honour at the 2010 Finncon. It was also my first time attending the con (or, indeed, any con), and I thought it would be a good idea to familiarise myself with the work at least one GoH. Neither Kushner nor Nalo Hopkinson could be found in the library, so off to the bookstore it was. The only Kushner available was The Privilege of the Sword, and it came home with me. And I fell in love with it.
Making sure that her fingers were well licked and dried, the Ugly Girl went to take a book from the pile on the mantelpiece. She sat by the window reading her treatise on mathematics, ignoring the duke as he received and donned his new shirt, received and interviewed an informant (who was not offered strawberries), received and made fun of a small but very ugly lamp meant as a bribe and finally went back to his fireplace excavations.
Although it is more YA than her other books, I still chose Privilege of the Sword as my favourite among the Riverside books. It’s light, witty, and fun – a growing up story of Katherine, a picture of Riverside after Alec has become Duke, and a delightful comparison of two girls; Artemisia Fitz-Levi has everything Katherine initially wanted, but all the beautiful dresses and exciting parties and numerous beaux don’t a happy life make.
Of course, if one has read Swordspoint, this book also offers a look at Alec’s adult life, and let me tell you, it’s heartbreaking. Seriously.
We found the old armory, full of antique weapons and country things like boar spears. My teacher picked us out some old, blunt practice swords, and we started back through the hall.
Suddenly, he grinned at me. “Hey!” he cried. “On your guard!”
I raised my sword, and he retreated before me. “Don’t worry,” he called. “I’ll keep falling back – just come on!”
And so I advanced on him, all the way down the long gallery, driving the master swordsman back with my clumsy tipped blade, sweeping past the portraits and landscapes, the swathes of sheeting, the covered mirrors, over the polished parquet.
He fetched up against a door, his face bright with laughter, and spread his arms open to me. I sighted my spot, to the left of his breastbone, and lunged – but he deflected the point with the tiniest of motions and my sword jarred in my hand.
“You want to relax your grip,” he said, “but that was good: a nice, clean attack.” He was laughing, looking back down the length of the hall. “God, I’ve wanted to do that ever since I got here! Thank you.”
The foremost praise for Kushner’s Thomas the Rhymer (not part of the Riverside series) has been the masterful handling of different points of view. In Privilege of the Sword, I feel, the POV business is absolutely beautifully executed. Katherine’s story is conveyed in first person, whereas other main characters are written in third person. The effect is quite wonderful, even if it sounds suspicious when thus explained. Trust me. It’s great.
One point I would like to make. Katherine gets a swords master to teach her to fence, and reading the scenes he appears in are reminiscent of Syrio and Arya in A Game of Thrones. It appears though that Kushner has not read ASOIAF and only recently found out the books have this little bit in common.
Just in case someone was wondering.
So get yourself some Kushner! If you haven’t read any, here, let me help you out by arranging the three books in reading order:
Privilege of the Sword
The Fall of the Kings
There are also various short stories situated in Riverside, such as “Red-Cloak”, “The Swordsman Whose Name Was Not Death”, “Death of the Duke”, “A Wild and Wicked Youth”, “The Man with the Knives” and “The Duke of Riverside”. I have yet to read Wicked Youth and Duke of Riverside, but I can already tell you all these short stories are excellent.
Kushner gets you addicted. I swear. Give mannerpunk a shot!