Ellen Kushner is one of those authors that I’ve been aware of for a long time, but I can’t say exactly why. I’m sure I’ve never read anything of hers before. It might be as obscure a reason as her possibly having been a member of a museum I used to work for in East Hampton. She’s from NYC and is part of the arts community there, it seems, so it’s possible she summered in ‘The Hamptons’ and joined The Guild Hall there. Anyway, it doesn’t really matter.
What does matter is that The Privilege of the Sword is brilliant! And it was a complete suprise, for me. I mentioned a bunch of posts ago that the 2006 World Fantasy Convention sent me box of books, and this was one of them. I picked it up, more or less at random, and starting reading it and was immediately sucked in.
Kushner weaves words into a tapestry. You don’t read this book…you sink into it. I am, quite frankly, in awe of her skill, of her voice and how she just causes imagery to bloom in front of the mind’s eye. Let me just grab a random passage for you. In this scene our heroine Katherine is meeting her uncle, ‘the mad duke’, for the first time:
My uncle the Mad Duke looked me up and down.
“You aren’t very tall,” he said.
Beyond his face I could see his back reflected in the convex mirror over the fireplace, so that he swallowed up the room.
It was a delicious room, painted blue and white with touches of gold; very modern, very airy, filled with pictures on the walls and curios scattered on little tables that seemed to have no other purpose but to hold them. Tall glass doors opened onto gardens overlooking the river.
He said, “This is Tremontaine House. It is very elegant. I inherited it from my grandmother, the last duchess.” When he mentioned her, the planes of his face hardened in distaste. I recognized the expression from many family dinners of our own. My uncle’s face kept turning familiar, as though I’d known him all my life. A tilt of the head, a flick of the eye—I knew him—and then it was gone, and I was confronting a fearsome stranger. He had my mother’s long brown hair, which looked very odd. I thought only students had long hair. He’d been a student once, but surely that was long ago.
The book is fantasy, but there’s no magic in it. The setting is a land where the kings have been overthrown, but the nobility still exists, ruling in what seems to be a quasi-democratic fashion. We really only see hints of this. Many disputes between nobles are solved by dueling, and more often than not, the dueling parties hire professional swordsmen to stand in for them. The Mad Duke has brought Katherine to the city to have her trained in using a sword, for reasons known only to him.
This is a world where women don’t do such things as dress in pants and carry swords, so it’s a bit of scandal. But the Duke is nothing if not scandalous. He is wealthy and of noble blood, so he Matters, but he is also prone to drinking and drugging, and his lovers are as often men as women. In general, he is something of an irritant to proper society in town. A fascinating character and very fun to watch.
But the main thrust of the book revolves around Katherine as she grows accustomed to her new life, makes some unlikely friends, and ends up playing the part of the hero that she has long read about.
A wonderful book. Delightful from first page to last. Oh, and I have the ‘trade paperback’ print and I’d recommend it. The font and graphics used for chapter headings and section breaks really add to the experience. Well worth the extra few bucks over the cost of a mass-market paperback edition.