The Privilege of the Sword by Ellen Kushner

Author: Ellen Kushner
Publisher: Bantam Spectra
Format: Paperback
Genre: Fantasy

Back Cover Blurb

Welcome to Riverside, where the aristocratic and the ambitious battle for power in the city’s ballroom, brothels and boudoirs. Into this alluring world walks Katherine, a well-bred country girl versed in the rules of conventional society. Her mistake is thinking that they apply. For Katherine’s host and uncle, Alec Campion, aka 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.

What I Thought

The Privilege of the Sword has earned high praise from the likes of Joan D. Vinge (whose early work I really enjoyed), Suzy McKee Charnas, Patricia McKillip and a couple of other of my favourite fantasy and SF authors, all of which makes me wonder if any of these luminaries actually read the book? Or, if in fact, read the same book as I did? Because, dear reader, we seem to have a huge difference of opinion about this one.

Maybe it was expectation for my part. I was given this book as a birthday present, as it was on my wish list based on all the glowing quotes heaped upon it. It was given me by a friend who really knows what I like, strong female protagonists, interesting story-lines, characters and situations that pop, and more… knows that I absolutely love swordplay, around which this story is centred. That said, it failed to deliver on any number of levels, at least, for me.

Privilege has a fairly interesting if somewhat muddled story-line, which weaves Katherine’s story (as seen through her eyes, told in the first-person) with that of the petulant and somewhat spoilt Artemisia (written strangely enough in the third-person) taking up the rest of the plot. 

The story itself also relies heavily on references to its predecessor, Swordspoint (which I haven’t read) with regard to a number of characters including setting, although in truth there’s not much to the setting to begin with. 

This could be any sword and sorcery kingdom without the sorcery part, which is a shame in itself, as it might have added something which was sadly lacking. And while Privilege is billed as a fantasy, again, for me, it reads more like an averagely written period-piece. I would even go as far as to say Georgette Heyer does, or I should say, did do a better job with her versions of a good old-fashioned Swashbuckler!

The characters are, for the most part, unsympathetic and the storyline didn’t endear them to me either. Even Katherine came across, at times, as a bit of the naive cliche. While Alec Campion, the Mad Duke Tremontaine from the original book, is one of the least likeable narcissistic fops of a character I’ve read in a long time. 

The more interesting moments of the story, which were few, where when Katherine is learning the sword, though I’m never quite sure why she is set on avenging the rape of Artemisia given theirs is an unlikely friendship to begin with. The sword-fight scenes were the only highlights in this glimpse into a society and it’s manners, where the fantasy setting should have allowed the author to do so much more. The only thing holding the whole book together was Kushner’s prose and that in itself wasn’t enough for me, in the end.

This simply wasn’t the book I’d hoped it would be.

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