Ellen Kushner’s Swordspoint has the distinction of being among the most intelligent and stylish fantasy novels I’ve ever read. As it happens, I have to go back to a very basic definition of “fantasy” to make that statement, since Kushner’s universe shares no characteristics with traditional fantasy save that she made it up and it is most definitely not this world.
The Privilege of the Sword falls between the short stories “The Swordsman Whose Name Was Not Death” (which is the title of a novel and play that forms a running thread through this novel) and “Red Cloak,” which come before, and “The Death of the Duke,” which closes the story of Alec and Richard. Many of the characters from Swordspoint appear, and in fact, Alec Campion, the swordsman St Vier’s mad scholar, now Duke Tremontaine, is central, as is Anthony Deverin, Lord Ferris. However, the story revolves around Katherine Talbert, Alec’s niece, who, after a years-long wrangle between the Duke and the Talberts over a small inheritance which has left her mother nearly bankrupt, is part of a settlement: Katherine will come to the city to live with the Mad Duke at House Tremontaine and will have no contact with her other family for six months. In addition, she will wear the wardrobe provided by the Duke, who will also provide lessons. In her innocence, Katherine foresees a new wardrobe of fashionable gowns, a glittering round of parties and balls, and even suitors as she has her Season in town.
What she gets are men’s clothes and lessons in swordsmanship: the Duke is a scandal in Society, no one wants to be seen associating with him except scholars, pickpockets, street urchins and worse, and the idea of a woman dressing in men’s clothes — well, that is for actresses and the like, not the nobility. Nevertheless, gritting her teeth and remembering her duty to her family, Katherine perseveres.
In the world of the intense politics of the nobility, Lord Ferris has, after returning from his exile in Arkenveldt, married money, revived his career, and now serves as Crescent Chancellor of the Council of Lords, the highest office in the land. He is still a bitter enemy of the Mad Duke, whose only involvement in the Council is to make sporadic visits to their deliberations with the sole purpose of throwing them into complete chaos, mostly because he finds their activities to be self-serving and damaging to the country as a whole.
The Privilege of the Sword, although it certainly moves briskly enough to keep a reader’s interest, is as much a novel of character as Swordspoint, or perhaps even more so, particularly graced as it is by the Mad Duke, who is admittedly one of my favorite characters from any realm of literature. Alec’s madness is of the clear-eyed sort that calls into question all of our basic assumptions. In our terms, he is as neurotic as it’s possible to be and still function, but he is also cagey, brilliant, and ruthless, and we’re never quite sure where the one leaves off and the other starts. He is also an idealist and a humanitarian, and his clear-eyed vision on the follies of privilege is the starting point for much of the satire in the novel. As he says himself, “I don’t make the rules. This annoys me, and so I comfort myself by breaking them.” Given the ways in which he breaks them, it is the rules that come into question, not Alec. He is one of the few truly creative characters in the book, and poor Ferris, whose rule-breaking is somewhat hidebound and unimaginative, is outclassed.
The humor in the book, which is more obviously funny than I’ve noticed from Kushner before, is mostly the result of Alec’s observations and reactions, which give us one gasp of shocked recognition after another, leading to those “oh, how true it is” head-shakings through the laughter.
Katherine provides another vehicle for sharply etched satire: a young woman, she begins the story with her head full of the things that occupy young women of her station, mainly finding a good match, which means land and money. It’s here that I’m reminded most of Jane Austen’s novels, with the additional virtue that Kushner’s satire is more contemporary: it becomes not just a study in class, but a dissection of our whole way of thinking, even in a supposedly post-feminist world, about men and women and what their appropriate roles are. Katherine is truly liberated, albeit reluctantly, by Alec’s insistence that she learn swordplay and wear men’s clothes — she is also free, thereby, to get into some of the kinds of trouble that young men get into, and her adventures add another layer of intrigue to the story. It’s worth noting that Katherine is the most nearly normal character I can remember Kushner coming up with — most of her people, at least the important ones, skirt the edges, but they do it in delightful ways.
There is also a touch of romance, not only a budding friendship that could be more between Katherine and Marcus, Alec’s young servant, but also a quietly played scene between Alec and Richard that reveals new dimensions to their characters, as well as their vulnerabilities and their overwhelming need for to each other.
If Swordspoint is a perfect gem, The Privilege of the Sword is the gem in its full setting: elegant, wicked, funny, intelligent, and fluent. There is, as is so often the case with truly good books, much more to this one than I can possibly discuss here. Read them both. And if you can find the short stories, read those, too.
(Bantam Books, 2006)
Ellen Kushner has her own Web site. The three stories mentioned are collected in the 2003 Bantam Spectra edition of Swordspoint.
The cover artwork for the Small Beer editon is shown above. It’s a detail showing hand on ornate sword hilt from “Portrait of Charles IX of France” by French mannerist Francois Clouet.