When the Mad Duke Tremontaine offers to drop his vendetta against his sister if she surrenders her daughter to him for 6 months, young Katherine heads for the City with pipe-dreams of velvet cloaks, rich suitors and saving her family. But what does Alec Campion really want with her? And can a woman ever exercise the privilege of the sword?
As with Swordspoint, I find it hard to quantify how much I loved The Privilege of the Sword because the live group read has been such a full contact entertainment in itself. These books work enormously well in installments, and each week gave us plenty to chew over.
While Swordspoint struck me as a novel of personalities, The Privilege of the Sword – although still character-driven – feels like it has more to say. The politics here are intensely personal in their impact, but the themes are bigger: it’s not (just) about Ferris’s political aspirations, Richard’s honour or Alec’s mysterious past; it’s about social frameworks, sexual politics, and injustice.
All these big themes are wrapped up in a coming of age story as Katherine is forged into a fierce, wilful, romantic woman – and how much do I love that this is a story that does not insist its heroine give up her love of novels and melodrama to become an adult? All the much.
It may be impossible to be a woman who grew up on stories of girls breaking the rules to prove they are as worthy as men (Alanna, Eowyn, Jill daughter of Cullyn, I’m looking at you) without loving this story of a girl who is forced to break the rules against her will and discovers it has its benefits. As Katherine comes to recognise the unfair constraints society places on her and her friends, and learns to re-evaluate what she has been taught to despise, she gains an intense freedom to act. It’s a familiar if inverted journey, and for once our heroine is supported (whether she wants it or not) – by the far from traditional men of the Tremontaine household.
There was a point where I worried about her agency (or lack thereof), precisely because she is constantly being pushed around by these men for the first half of the book. But the second half of the novel more than makes up for it: once Katherine realises what she is capable of at the Riverside ball, she – not Alec, or Marcus – shapes her responses and takes action as she sees fit.
So we’re clear, this one comes with trigger warnings for marital abuse, rape and PTSD (SPOILER: not aimed at our heroine). Where my complaint about Swordspoint was the influence but invisibility of its womenfolk, The Privilege of the Sword puts women and women’s issues front and centre. We see them radiant and commanding, but we also see them controlled and victimised. I was honestly shocked by the rape, which pushes the narrative from teetering on the frivolous edge of fun to a darker confrontation of the societal norms with which it proceeds to engage.
Hats off to Ellen Kushner. The aftermath of this pivotal event is unflinching, from the victim blaming to the personal trauma. Yet it’s not prurient. Male authors take note: this is how you tackle rape without being exploitative. I found myself raging and sympathising by turns, growing teary as then almost literally dancing for joy as the story played out.
It’s stirring stuff, heart-breaking and triumphant by turns.
Along the way, we meet many familiar faces, and we are once again kept guessing as to their true motivations. It was delightful and frustrating to see Alec being an asshat (but he does it so well), and I remain in awe of the fact that book after book Ms Kushner can evoke my intense dislike for his self-absorbed, damage-dealing debauchery then whip away the curtains to reveal what’s driving him and have me forgive him everything. Ferris, by contrast, is an almost pantomime villain in his awfulness, as is Lady Fitz-Levi (but at least she means well, even if she’s wrong in every way). The inner life of Kushner’s characters is brought vibrantly to life at every stage (and oh my word, Marcus. And Lucius/Teresa. And Janine. I could go on. And on).
My only reservation – and I’m nitpicking, honestly – is the acceleration at the climax. I felt a little side-swiped by the unexpected, and while it resulted in cackling and left our characters in a really interesting place, it all happened so quickly that I was left blinking and worrying about loose ends (not as many as you might think). However, I do love that Ellen Kushner refuses to spoonfeed her readership: it’s up to you to figure out some of the implications and consequences (and it’s worth the effort).
It’s one hell of a rollercoaster, and I was kept guessing to the end. I can only recommend it as a delightful if emotionally exhausting read.