Riverside Read-along: The Privilege of the Sword 3/4

Book cover: The Privilege of the SwordIn which many illusions are shattered as matters take a turn for the decidedly darker, and our heroine learns that she not only has the skill to kill a man with a sword, but the motivation too. While we all cheer her on, too.

Warning: spoilery and unpleasant. Includes discussion of rape, misogyny, and victim-blaming

Any evening that is described as instructional rather than entertaining is an evening that a young lady of good breeding should probably avoid. So it goes without saying that Alec decides to take his niece along, and Artemisia persuades Lord Ferris to take her too.

A Riverside ball is even more lurid than a Tremontaine soiree, from the pink-clad hostess seated on her conch throne to the artists sculpting guests into installations expressing the intersection of art and morality. Or enjoying a great deal of physical contact at unlikely angles, depending on your perspective.

It’s all a great deal of fun until Alcuin bites Alec (and to think, not so long ago the Duke might have enjoyed that) and the Mad Duke provokes his ex-lover into a challenge. Alec is definitely misbehaving, but I think there’s an ounce of deliberation here too; another convenient way to put the privilege of the sword in the spotlight.

Thankfully Katherine can call terms, although it seems that in limiting the combat to first blood she has undersold herself. Her opponent is capable but over-cautious, and – crucially – not trained by Richard de Vier. She manages not to put her sword through his heart, but I’ll admit to wanting to cheer that she could have done.

The real shame is that it isn’t Ferris. Whilst we had glimpses of the younger Sir Peacock’s temper and intemperate behaviour (especially when drunk) in Swordspoint, this week brings the horrifying realisation of just how awful he really is. The rape was unexpected enough that I ended up reading it twice, sure I’d misunderstood. Poor Artemisia.

I think it’s fair to say he shocked all of us. While Swordspoint had some sharp-edged politics – I was certainly knocked sideways by Richard’s punishment of Lord Horn – I’d never considered just how self-indulgently brutal Ferris might actually be. He was cruel to Kathy, but there was a big distinction in social class (I’m not suggesting that excuses it; only that it made him feel safe in treating her badly); and he daydreamed about punishing Diane, but they were daydreams. But the gloves and the masks all come off now. In his eyes, by demanding to be taken to a Riverside ball, Artemisia is asking for it.

Excuse me for a moment while I decide whether to vomit or combust.

Taking a step back and looking at the developments thematically, this week is all about reversals. Katherine has grown into her trousers and mastered her sword; she has gained the confidence to be seen in public and she isn’t afraid to engage in a fight. By the end of this act, she even has her first brush with her own sexuality, and it’s eye-opening in every regard for her (and gosh, made it terribly warm in here).

By contrast, Artemisia has had all her illusions stripped from her – first by her fiancé and then by her parents, who promptly decide that she’s being unreasonable and needs to be hustled right along into wedding the beast. Once the confident society belle, she’s now the one desperate for kindness and support; and happily Katherine is prepared to be there for her (although having the girls build their relationship via secret letters and a shared attachment to melodramatic novels left me flip-flopping as I struggled to match tone to content).

Until this point, it’s been clear that the politics can be cut-throat, but perhaps I’d been lulled into a false sense of security in terms of how the Hill regards and treats women. Diane de Tremontaine was formidable and Lady Artemisia appeared to enjoy a lot of latitude – but now it is emphasised how traditional and patriarchal the society really is. What Ferris does is unforgivable – but what he says afterwards; and how Lord and Lady Fitz-Levi respond – actually made me feel ill.

Although young ladies seemed to have a lot of freedom in choosing their partner, there’s no doubt that making a good match remains the imperative, and that their sexuality is still strictly behind closed doors (young men can be rakes; young ladies must be untouched). It’s also clear from Ferris’s response to Katherine’s challenge (yay, Katherine!) that young ladies aren’t taken too seriously. They are ornaments and sources of wealth, status, and heirs. They’re absolutely not a person with rights or agency. It’s a familiar theme, and it never fails to make me angry.

As another taste of the same wretched stew, we get a glimpse of what’s going on between Lucius Perry and his lover Teresa. Teresa is a social outcast for having the nerve to leave her abusive husband, who has subsequently been locked up as a lunatic (reading between the lines). His family insist this is her fault, and her former friends shun her for leaving an untenable situation.

So: a bitter draught this week, with a lot of manoeuvering to set up what must ultimately be a showdown between Katherine and Ferris – all of which plays into Alec’s hands politically. Alec, in his defence, managed to convince me this week that he does hold his niece in some regard and that he can be steered away from his controlling impulses. Whether he’d let her act if it didn’t also suit his ends? Well, Tremontaine is Tremontaine. I couldn’t possibly put money on that.

That said, his reaction to Katherine’s declaration of intent warmed my heart. So here’s to Katherine, for spelling out why everything is bad and wrong and deserves to be stabbed through the heart:

“I’m going to challenge him because you can’t treat people that way. No one seems to realize it; no one seems to care. He certainly doesn’t. He thinks he owns her already, and her parents do, too – and even you. It makes me sick.”

Me too, Katherine. Me too. Go get ’em.


As usual, our reactions as we read are captured on Storify (thanks @effingrainbow).

Join us for our weekly read (full schedule here)! We will be livetweeting to the finish with #TPOTS next Sunday night at 10pm UTC.