Ellen Kushner’s The Privilege of the Sword is unique for its explorations of gender and sexuality in a fantasy setting. Its nominations (Nebula Award nominee, Locus Award Finalist, Tiptree Honor Book) certainly go a long way to recommend it. If you’re not into fantasy, this book might still be a good read. It’s definitely a genre-crosser, set in a pseudo-historical fantasy setting where there is no magic at all. It’s part Jane Austen comedy of manners and part swashbuckler. It’s very smart, and the prose is lovely. And it’s got one of the best female protagonists to grace the pages of a fantasy novel this decade.
The story begins thusly,
No one sends for a niece they’ve never seen before just to annoy her family and ruin her life. That, at least, is what I thought. This was before I had ever been to the city. I had never been in a duel, or held a sword myself. I had never kissed anyone, or had anyone try to kill me, or worn a velvet cloak. I had certainly never met my uncle the Mad Duke. Once I met him, much was explained.
Katherine Samantha Campion Talbert thinks she’s lucked out when her uncle, Duke Alec, summons her to the city. She has visions of new dresses and a Season of balls and suitors. Therefore, she is dismayed and shocked when she discovers that the Duke means to make her dress in boys’ clothes and train to be his personal swordswoman. It becomes apparent that the Duke’s main motivation for “ruining her life” is to annoy his political rivals and engender talk in the city. It’s the sort of character he is. He’s unapologetically bisexual, he prefers his house in the slum of Riverside to Tremontaine House, his manor in the “respectable” part of the city, and he plays games with people for his own amusement.
In this society, “the privilege of the sword” refers to the right of the noble class to settle disagreements through duels. It is not considered fashionable to fight one’s own duels. Most noble households employ a swordsman for this purpose, or may engage one to fight a specific duel. The lower class doesn’t have this privilege (though the swordsmen doing the actual fighting are mostly from the lower class). Women also don’t have this privilege. Their honor is regarded as the property of the men in their households. Duels may be fought over them, but they aren’t supposed to challenge anyone on their own behalf. Therefore, Katherine is put in an uncomfortable situation. She doesn’t “fit” in this society. There is no predefined place for someone like her– a female, a noble, and a swordswoman. It’s fun to watch the other characters struggle with this– it frustrates them that they can’t put Katherine in a box. Of course, for Katherine, it’s not funny at all. She’s a teenager, and she was brought up as a young lady in a noble but impoverished family. All she wants to do is fit.
But Katherine finds herself liking her unique place in city society. No one will have anything to do with her socially, yet she finds that she likes fencing. She is, in fact, good at it. And when her friend Artemisia Fitz-Levi is raped by her older fiance, and her family wants to sweep the whole thing under the carpet and speed up the marriage, Katherine is the only one who can defend her honor by calling out the man responsible. Her knowledge of the sword has given her that privilege, and she discovers how powerful privilege can be. She also finds herself exploring her own sexuality, and shares kisses with both the Duke’s male servant and a renowned female actress. The Privilege of the Sword is a book about the places we carve out for ourselves around, above, and below the restricting conventions of society. It’s about people who exist in those places, who dare to step outside the boxes into a more ambiguous territory.