The Privilege of the Sword: Ellen Kushner

★★★★

I have a list of what I call ‘comfort books’: novels which, in times of stress or sadness, I can curl up with and be reminded that the world is a wonderful place (Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day is one; These Old Shades is another). The Privilege of the Sword, a sequel to Swordspoint, has just joined this very select company. A quote on the back cover of my edition calls it ‘A magical mixture of Dumas and Georgette Heyer‘, which is precisely the right way to describe this gloriously bubbly swashbuckling adventure. Stuffed with duels, romance and intrigue, it also has the kind of feisty, independent heroine I would have adored as a sixteen-year-old. And I adore her even more now: in the intervening twelve years I’ve read enough books to know what a rare kind of heroine she is.

Both Swordspoint and The Privilege of the Sword are usually classed as fantasy, but they’re more like alternate-universe historical fiction. Both take place in an invented city at a time rather like the 18th century, but that’s where the ‘fantasy’ ends: here there are no dragons, no magic, no mystical amulets. The  aristocratic families on the Hill squabble and plot and parade their marriageable daughters; and the down-at-heel suburb of Riverside teems with thieves, cardsharps and the more impoverished scholars from the University. As we saw in Swordspoint, this is a world where the nobility settle their quarrels by single combat – not personally, of course, because that’d be far too much effort, but by hiring swordsmen to fight on their behalf.

As this novel opens, however, Katherine Talbert has only the haziest understanding of all this. She lives a modest existence in the country with her widowed, impoverished mother, eking out an existence in the aftermath of ruinous lawsuits instituted by her mother’s estranged brother, the mad Duke Tremontaine. And then, one day, Katherine receives an invitation: if she agrees to spend six months in the city with her uncle the Duke, without contacting her family, he will put aside the lawsuits and allow them to recover their fortunes. Katherine accepts, dreaming of balls and beautiful gowns: for why else would her ridiculously wealthy uncle invite her to town? Surely he intends to establish his young niece in Society and make a fine match for her? Katherine is sure she’d be up to the task: ‘“I must have a train for staircases… and a velvet cape.” I knew that was all I needed to break anyone’s heart. Let me appear on the right staircase just once in a velvet cape, and I was a made woman.’

Unfortunately, her uncle has quite different plans for her and, as befits Alec Campion, these plans promise to scandalise the very Society which Katherine dreams of joining. The Duke has decided to train his niece as a swordsman, to become his bodyguard: ‘the dark duke’s bright shadow‘. And so, Katherine’s peers flutter around in pretty dresses, swoon over men and dream of themselves as Stella, the heroine of the popular novel The Swordsman Whose Name Was Not Death, Katherine is dressed in men’s clothes, put through her paces and fantasises about becoming as feared and lethal a fencer as the novel’s hero Fabian. Fortunately, she has good teachers, including one particular swordsman whose fame could almost eclipse that of Fabian…

The fun thing about The Privilege of the Sword is that Katherine starts off thinking she’s in a Regency romance, but rapidly realises that she’s actually in a completely different genre. Once she’s over the shock, her attitude and narratorial voice change subtly to accommodate this. She’s been so fixated on the romantic aspects of the situation – determined girl; poor but noble family; wealthy, mysterious uncle – that she hasn’t appreciated how much more dangerous, thrilling and satisfying her story could be. (I found it rather telling that Katherine has no choice but to find male role models, because popular culture can’t countenance a woman as free-spirited and self-sufficient as she is – until, of course, news of Tremontaine’s swashbuckling niece gets out; and then popular culture is only too happy to adapt.) Katherine’s odd status allows her the freedom to be friends with whomever she chooses: whether that’s the vacuous well-born Artemisia, who sees herself as a romantic heroine, or the Duke’s assistant Marcus, who is only too happy to escape from his duties and become Katherine’s partner in crime.

Along the way there are dastardly villains, rogues, ravishings and all manner of secrets. And, casting his shadow over everything, is the laconic Duke Tremontaine himself, who honestly gets more like the Duke of Avon the more I read about him. I was able to bear Alec much more here than in Swordspoint: despite his carefully-constructed aura of drunkenness, debauchery and thorough lack of respectability, we begin to see that he has actually done a great deal of good. Besides, I rather enjoyed his friendship with Flavia, which appears to be founded purely on a mutual love of mathematical problems and half-hearted squabbling. Of course, I was wondering from the beginning what had happened to Richard… and when I found out, the blend of tragedy and dramatic rightness of it touched me deeply. I found the episode with him and Alec halfway through the book to be the most moving of all their scenes together in both novels. Perfect. I was actually surprised how glad I was to be reunited with the familiar characters from Swordspoint: Alec; Richard; Michael Godwin… I hadn’t realised I missed them so much.

The book is not flawless: it can’t quite decide whether it wants to be written in first- or third-person narration and it skips about slightly confusingly between them from one section to the next. And I didn’t quite buy the scene where Katherine and Marcus sneak into Glinley’s. But despite this, it’s full of warmth and panache. It’s an affectionate parody of Regency romance, which points out that there are much more interesting things women could be doing with their time, rather than sewing and waiting for Mr Darcy’s next letter to be delivered. Kushner should be thoroughly commended on two points.

First, she creates a believable range of strong, feisty women – Katherine, Teresa Grey, the Black Rose – who are talented in various ways and are quite able to make their own way in the world without defining themselves by the men in their lives. Secondly, she’s one of the only authors I’ve read who has created such an accurate and convincing representation of what it’s actually like to be a teenage girl: the passionate self-identification with favourite characters in books; the flamboyant romantic friendships; the dream of being grown-up; and the gradual realisation that it’s not actually all it’s cracked up to be. Katherine herself is wonderful: bright, down-to-earth and jolly good with a sword. My fondness for the book, I freely admit, is largely based on the fact that Katherine is living my sixteen-year-old self’s ideal life (I was the kind of dreamer who couldn’t even hold a furled umbrella without fantasising that it was a rapier. Actually, things haven’t changed that much).

You should give this a go if you’re attracted by the idea of a novel that blends Cyrano de Bergerac with Jane Austen, peppered with the kind of sexual fluidity that would have made the latter blush, and with a heroine who reads like Georgette Heyer’s version of Arya Stark. This especially applies if you’re a girl and, like me, spent your teenage years dreaming of swashbuckling and fighting duels. You really have to read this: it’ll take you back to being sixteen again, and get you reaching for that umbrella. Have at you!

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