the Little Red Reviewer

The Privilege of the Sword, by Ellen Kushner

Posted on: August 17, 2013

The Privilege of the Sword, by Ellen Kushner (a Riverside novel)

published in 2006

where I got it: purchased new












Fifteen to twenty years after the events of Swordspoint: Alec is now the Duke Tremontaine, Richard St. Vier is nowhere to be found, and old grudges are still burning. But on the bright side, Riverside is slightly safer.


Seemingly out of the blue, Duke Tremontaine sends for his niece Katherine. She is to live with him for six months, and have no contact with her mother and brothers during that time.


Katherine, raised at her family’s country estate, is expectedly naive. And why she know anything about the outside world? She’s been raised as a young lady of quality, given the tools she needs to secure a proper marriage. Titles and marriages however, do not guarantee financial stability, and Katherine spends much of her time identifying what can be sold for cash and hemming her own clothing.   Even so, she still dreams of visiting the city, having a season full of lace and dresses and balls and then getting married to someone who loves her. This is what she’s been raised to expect and look forward to because no one has told her otherwise.


Your assumptions? I see them. Observe, as Ellen Kushner smashes them into itty bitty pieces.


When Katherine arrives at the Duke’s home, she finds only men’s clothing waiting for her,  her uncle’s strange, strange friends, and daily fencing lessons.  Indeed, there is a reason Tremontaine is known as The Mad Duke.  Within a week of arriving in the city, Katherine realizes fencing lessons aren’t that terrible; befriends Artemesia Fitz-Levi , the daughter of a well placed family; and learns that tromping around town in men’s clothes comes with social consequences. Within a month, she’s learned to ignore the names people call her, been befriended by the Duke’s young valet Marcus, learned something is very fishy with Artemesia’s cousin Lucius Perry who seems to have a secret life, and that Duke Tremontaine is much more than the local libertine, when it comes to subverting expectations.


Thus begins Katherine’s 6 month whirlwind tour of how the world really works, leave your innocence at the door, thank you very much.

The more Katherine breaks the rules of fashion by wearing men’s jackets and breeches and boots (these are the only clothes her uncle supplies her with), the more comfortable she gets in breaking the rules of gender expectations.  When Artemesia needs someone to defend her honor, Katherine is there. In the messages the two girls send back and forth, Artemesia starts signing her name Stella, and Katherine sometimes signs her name as Tyrian, the girls playacting that they are characters from a famous romance novel, The Swordsman Whose Name Was Not Death.   But, a girl? Taking on a man’s role? unheard of! To the Duke’s amusement, scandal and confusion ensues.


I don’t know which I loved more in this fantasy novel – the characterization, or the way Katherine’s story unfolds. Ellen Kushner is an absolute master of characterization, often starting out with just the surface of someone, but diving deeper into their psyche with every page turned. When we first meet Artemesia, it’s so easy to judge her, to see her as a flaky teenager, interested only in that the ribbons of her dress coordinate with the ribbons of a tablecloth. And her cousin Lucius Perry, again, is very easy to judge at first. He too, appears to be a little flaky, but for his own safety he holds his secrets dear.


Jump out of the book and into real life for a minute, because I’d like to unpack this. How often are people encouraged to show only certain aspects of their lives, because they’ve been told a certain aspect of their life or their personality is untasteful to the general public? Following societal expectations is seen as the easy and safe route. But as anyone whose ever done that knows, the risks to yourself are too high to make it worth it. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to never have to hold back? Some of you are saying “no, that’s never happened to me”, other are nodding your heads in understanding. This is a book for the nodders.


Within in the confines of house Tremontaine, no one has to hold back. Katherine will never be judged for being a woman who ignores gender expectations. Marcus will never be held to the sex trade jobs of his youth. Even Flavia, Alec’s mathematically minded but unattractive friend can take ownership of the insults flung her way, and through that ownership, decrease their value. In his own twisted way, Alec is trying to protect the people he loves.


Katherine may have a safe place to grow out of her innocence, but darker plots are surrounding the Duke. The main action takes a while to get started, and it’s not until the second half the book that intertwined plotlines explode with importance. The first half of the novel is incredibly slow moving, with little to no information about the direction the story is going to take.  It was all build up, to give a heavier impact to what came later.


Katherine is the main character, but as always, I wanted more of Alec.  Flawed and living in the shadows, he never says what he means, but shows it through body language and sly actions. Part coming of age story, part satirical comedy of manners, part family drama, The Privilege of the Sword isn’t quite as good as Swordspoint, but I’ll take any opportunity to revisit Riverside.

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12 Responses to "The Privilege of the Sword, by Ellen Kushner"

I haven’t read any of this author’s works but was thinking to read something as part of my Worlds Without End challenge (new to me authors) – so, I was looking at this and Swordspoint – I hadn’t realised that they were set in the same universe – so I suppose I should start with Swordspoint then??
Lynn :D


You can read them all as stand alones, but I highly recommend starting with Swordspoint. The third book in the group is called The Fall of the Kings.


This one sounds interesting. I’ve put SWORDSPOINT on my to-read list!


i think you’ll love Swordspoint!


I enjoyed Swordspoint a lot when I read it earlier this year, so this one has been on my list since then. I didn’t realize that it was set so much later, though!


not so much later, everyone you loved from Swordspoint is in this one. just, erm, not quite so limber. ;)


[…] Red Reviewer reviewed The Privilege of the Sword by Ellen Kushner. I haven’t read this series but my partner really likes […]


I had this on my to-read list at one time, then forgot about them. Glad to see this post, because now I have goodreads to help me remember. Added to OFFICIAL to-read pile. Thanks


that happens to me all the time, I’ll read about a book that looks interesting, want to read it. . . and then get distracted and forget. and then a while later I’ll see somthing on a blog about that book and it refreshes my memory! thank goodness for the blogosphere, and for GR, right? :)


[…] The Privilege of the Sword by Ellen Kushner (at least partly Redhead’s […]


[…] read about Swordspoint, but it was certainly on Redhead’s blog where I read about the sequel, The Privilege of the Sword. Although for her the sequel didn’t live up to the awesomeness of the first novel, her review […]


[…] Reviews: Bookshelves of Doom, The Little Red Reviewer, Stella Matutina, Valentina’s Room Have you reviewed this book? Leave a comment with the link […]


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