I haven't had this much fun revisiting a book in quite a while. (Actually, The Manny Files was as good the second and third time around, but I digress.) The Privilege of the Sword has been languishing in my review pile, a sad but not lonely place for such an excellent title. After spotting the twelfth copy of a certain chess-piece-bedecked vampire novel being toted around campus, I knew I had to put up some novels with strong, brave heroines that take no shit but still have time to enjoy the finer things in life, like velvet cloaks and voyeurism.
Lady Katherine's mad uncle agreed to erase her family's debt with one simple request: that she move in with him, live and dress as a boy and take up the sword, training to become his personal guard and defender of whatever honor his whim dictates. When her dear friend is violated, she sets out to avenge Lady Artemisia on behalf of all the women who cannot defend themselves, subvert the dominant paradigm, and find out what's going on behind her mad uncle's locked doors. Kate is tossed from her genteel poverty into a whirlwind of political intrigue, romantic drama, depravity, decadence, crazy artistic schemes, wonderfully terrible novels, brothels, lecherous theatrical fangirls...I could go on, but it's best to just leap it and let the story carry you away.
We shared [the gingerbread] out, and then went down to the kitchen together looking for more cake. The pastry cook was creating little icing flowers to decorate something. The duke appropriated the flowers and bore them and us off to the library, where we saw the sun down playing a complicated gambling game using them as tokens, joined by a couple of resident scholars. Winners got to eat their own sweets; Marcus occasionally was sent down for more plates of flowers to keep the game going. No one wanted any supper--instead, the scholars started quizzing each other on points so obscure that the joking guesses Marcus and threw out were sometimes right. Candles were lit. The duke scrambled up and down more ladders fetching volumes to adjudicate between them.
The night went on, the candles burned down and we sent for more, and the kitchen started sending up jellies and syllabubs, along with cakes decorated with the little flowers. The duke's homely friend Flavia came in, looking for a book, but she refused to play. She picked a few flowers off the cakes, listened for a bit, and then said, "I didn't know it was possible to get drunk on sugar, but I think you've managed it," and went off grumbling. She may have been right, though. One moment I was screaming with laughter, and the next it was all I could do to keep from falling asleep on the window seat.
It's just so much fun. The characters are great, loveable or hateable or inscrutable as need be, Katherine especially. She's this wonderful blend of naivity, self-assurance, confusion and cockiness, but with a good, brave heart despite her wild surroundings. The scandal is delicious, the swordfights exciting--not enough swordfighting in my opinion, but that leaves room for a sequel.
A friend from Livejournal once told me what every fantasy heroine wants is a pretty dress, a sword, and a good romp between the covers. This novel certainly delivers on the above, and while queer sexuality is sort of intolerantly tolerated in Riverside, the heroine (and most of the other characters who matter) is curiously bisexual. There are quite a few strong, sexually expressive females in the novel, which is refreshing in the context of historical/mannerpunk lit.
Here's where I apologize for letting my cranky riot-grrl side come out. Writers, here's a real revolutionary challenge: write me an alternate historical, fantasy or no, where women are on equal footing with men. No arranged marriages, no kowtowing to the fathers and brothers, no rape as a shortcut to character development. Kushner comes closer than most that I've read, and I am grateful for it. It's a riveting, romantic gem of a novel.
*Spaceholder for Ellen Kushner's website (it's down right now)
*A beautiful review at Strange Horizons. The first paragraph made me cheer:
It's a man's world. Yes, still. How else could Ellen Kushner's The Privilege of the Sword—a vastly entertaining bildungsroman, told as a novel of manners with a judicious amount of swashbuckling—be so easily dismissed by one blogger as "fantasy chick lit"? The main character is a young woman, and there are a couple of references to shoes, it is true. The setting is also largely urban, a generous amount of tears are shed (a girl is raped; this upsets her), and certain characters do indeed fall in love or at any rate have sex (both pastimes being, as I understand it, quite common among human beings). The fact that it is also pacy, witty, filled with politicking and swordfights, and essentially a coming-of-age story, is apparently irrelevant. Men's stories are universal, after all; women's are niche (and fluffy).