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

Book cover: The Privilege of the SwordLady Artemisia has realised what kind of man she’s betrothed to (and what he will expect of her). Lady Katherine has learnt how to kill a man, and knows which one she’d like to kill. And Alec? Alec may just be inordinately proud of his niece after all.

Well hello to unexpected outcomes. It’s a rollercoaster ride to the finish, with a familiar amount of emotional damage being handed out – but thankfully some balm to go along with it.

Our initial focus is firmly back on the way in which society treats women. Artemisia’s delightful deplorable family devote themselves to persuading her that she can’t possibly have been wronged. It doesn’t matter what Ferris did to her as long as nobody finds out; a wrong can only happen in public. In fact, the only person wronging Artemisia in this scenario is Artemisia herself. It’s expert victim-blaming, delivered in a reasonable tone and with affection. Lady Fitz-Levi and I would not get along.

Across the Hill, Teresa and Lucius are also trapped by social convention. Her husband’s family still want her to go home because no other woman would marry her unbalanced, abusive husband and give him an heir. Teresa doesn’t matter in this scenario; only her womb. And after all, they’d stop being so horrid to her if she would just do what they want. Poor Teresa. Poor Lucius.

Thankfully, we have Katherine to give us a different perspective. She disregards Artemisia’s plea to retract her challenge and cuts up Ferris’s champion at the Godwin’s musicale (“Why don’t you ever have a musicale?” she asked. “I did, once. She bit me,” Alec replied).

Michael Godwin once again shows he’s grown up well. Sadly, he continues to inhabit the periphery; I never thought I’d miss him quite so hard. I didn’t even like him in Swordspoint. Now I want short stories about the sudden chats he and Lady Godwin feel the urgent need to rush upstairs for on a regular basis. Young Lydia Godwin may be the luckiest girl on the Hill to have these for her parents. I hope for her sake – and her young man’s – that she has chosen wildly. I’ve not been able to tell whether Michael actually disapproves of her fiancé or whether it’s a reflexive dislike of Lord Horn. He’s not intervening though. But I bet he would if young Horn pulled a Ferris. Uh, so to speak.

Lord Ferris may have lost Katherine’s challenge, but he still refuses to take her or it seriously. He cuts off his engagement to Artemisia, but he won’t withdraw from the city (although I was mildly surprised when Michael implied this would be the appropriate response; yes, besmirched honour, so I suppose it would, but I hadn’t thought it through. Regardless, Ferris isn’t playing). However, as the nature of the challenge was never made clear, Artemisia’s honour is intact and has been defended. Honour, she has it. Damn straight.

In an unexpected streak of magnificent malice, Ferris responds to the challenge by asking for Katherine’s hand – and, by implication, to become Alec’s heir. Or the father of Alec’s heirs. It’s a stunning riposte and I found myself suddenly uncertain of Alec’s response. I had all the faith in Alec’s belief in self-determinism, not marrying people off against their will, and mocking convention. But that early focus this week on women as pawns made me doubt my own instincts, and made me realise that at no point have I ever come to trust Alec.

Alec, who is being asked to sell his niece to his enemy in order to protect his friends. Alec, who has seen Ferris whip up the city against Flavia and the Black Rose for no reason other than they are his allies – and there are plenty of other women in Alec’s life that Ferris would delight in hurting. Alec, who knows how much Ferris likes hurting women. Ferris, who doesn’t believe that Richard St Vier is dead, and is effectively asking Alec to choose who Ferris should hurt next. GAH. It’s so easy to hate Ferris, not least because he’s so utterly certain of his right and his inevitable victory.

I really want to see Katherine stab Ferris in the heart.

But Katherine’s six months are done, and her mother Janine has arrived to reclaim her. A triumphant Janine, secure at last in her inheritance, determined to rescue her daughter from the Mad Duke and restore their family to gentility. And Katherine doesn’t want to be rescued.

Consider me dancing around the room hollering and cheering.

But first, there’s some family business to take care. Janine’s reconciliation confrontation with Alec makes an awful lot of things clear. Because – and I heaved a sigh of relief – it’s made evident Alec would never marry Katherine (or anyone else) off against their will. Alec’s feud with Janine stems from his attempt to save her from her forced marriage – but she too chose not to be rescued (or was talked out of it, like Artemisia) – and, unlike Katherine, couldn’t rescue herself.

Much of Alec’s adult relationships can suddenly be reinterpreted as the mistrustful loneliness of a teenage boy waiting alone in an orchard at night for a loved one who never came.

Oh, Alec. You make an awful lot more sense now. Oh, Richard.

While I have all the feelings about this, it’s not lost on me that Alec felt abandoned because his sister chose not to go with him. Seriously, Alec, it wasn’t about you. Be angry for the situation she’s put in by your parents, be angry that she’s bowing to social pressure, but Janine made her peace and appears to have been quite happy with her husband (unless my memories are fuzzed up – totally possible).

So, seriously, Alec, stop making it about you. I know it’s hard. But. She had the right to make her choices, and you can be Mr Judgey McJudgeson about them but you don’t get to punish her for them. Or steal her daughter and try to right all the wrongs (you perceive) in the world. Tch. Anyway. I think you’ve learnt now. Have a hug.

From here, events accelerate very quickly indeed. From Katherine sneaking around a brothel with Marcus to spy on Lucius (well hello); to Marcus’s unexpected response (oh, Marcus); to Ferris’s bully boys attacking Lucius in the street; to Alec confronting Ferris in his study – while the outside shape is consistent and makes sense, we don’t get to catch our breath before everything escalates beyond recognition. And I’ll say no more than that here, because spoilers. You’ve had lots of them already, but you deserve to keep the ending for yourselves.

I didn’t get to see Katherine stab Ferris in the heart, but I was entirely satisfied by the outcomes (although I would have liked a little more resolution for the Black Rose). Ellen Kushner has now played the same trick on me twice: got me disliking Alec intensely, then lifted a curtain and helped me feel for him based on a new understanding. And I know she’ll be able to pull this trick again and again, because her characters are so emotionally and psychologically complex. I still don’t like Alec, but I’d like to give him a (fully-clothed, entirely decorous) hug.

As for Katherine, well. Decorous be damned.

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

That’s it for The Privilege of the Sword: a round-up review will follow on Saturday. Join us next Sunday as we dive straight into The Fall of Kings – 9pm BST.