Writer: Ellen Kushner
I never really wanted to read this book. For starters, I hate the cover. The art in and of itself isn't half-bad, but the design and font choice makes me shudder. That reason alone kept me away from this often-praised and critically acclaimed novel. The other reason was that the story really never caught my interest.
So why give in? Because this title, along with a handful of others, was on the list presented to SHU fantasy writers to select their residency read. And because I'm curious if the book they selected was REALLY a better choice than any on the list, I decided to read every book on the list.***
Which means, of course, reading this one.
The premise: Katherine is a well-bred country girl hoping to live every girl's dream of marrying well and fitting into society. But her uncle is known as the Mad Duke, and the Mad Duke suddenly decides to giver her and her family the offer of a lifetime: he'll return to them the family fortune, if only Katherine will come to live with him for six months. Oh, and learn how to use a sword.
The book is set in the fictional Riverside, a setting Kushner has used in previous novels. If you visit Kushner's website, you'll learn that each book is meant to be read as a stand-alone, and that of the three books published in this world, The Privilege of the Sword is in the middle of the chronology. In theory, you should have no trouble getting into and enjoying this book.
But the fact is this: I always felt like I was missing something the entire time I read this book. Part of it was character motivation. I never felt drawn to the characters this story was REALLY about: Alec the Mad Duke and his lover, Richard St Vier. It was clear that their relationship should've really pulled at my heartstrings, but lacking the background for these characters kept my heart from going out to them. And I would've been fine with this had the book been more heavily grounded in Katherine's POV and her immersion into society and her new role as a girl in boy's clothing, but the sections not in Katherine's first-person POV took a rather distant omniscient voice, making me very well aware of the storyteller crafting the story. It wasn't the occasional head-hopping in this POV that distracted me, but rather the "name-calling." Maybe "elegant variation" is a better term for it, but in this POV, we constantly got labels instead of character names: the Mad Duke. The Ugly Girl. I'm sorry, but labels do not create empathy, and perhaps I wasn't supposed to emphasize with the Mad Duke or the Ugly Girl, but when labels applied to characters I was supposed to care about, like Katherine or Marcus or Artemisia, I have to question the POV. And after a while, I start to resent the storyteller (not necessarily the author, but rather the godlike voice dictating the story to me, which may or may NOT be the author, but the narrator), which doesn't exactly warm me up to the book either.
And then there's the setting. Oh, don't get me wrong, I saw what I needed to, but something felt missing from this book, and I hesitate to call it a lack of world-building. Rather, I suspect it's more of a case that the world is SO familiar to the author, and to the readers who've read the previous works, that the setting becomes neglected. After all, once you're familiar with a setting, all you really need is a phrase or two to illicit and vivid picture for the knowing reader's eye. It's like writing about New York City. Do I REALLY need to describe every detail of Times Square for you? No, I just need to mention Times Square, throw in a sensory detail or two, and be done with it. If you've seen NYC, you'll know exactly what I mean.
It's not like I felt particularly lost either. I never got an impression of a European grounding in this secondary world, and after perusing the author's website, I get the impression that Riverside is based on a blend of several places across the world, which is fascinating, and the blend works well for the book. Only, I just with the world had been more vivid, more clear, and less like just another fantasy with hats-off to sexual freedoms, gender reversals, and complex politics.
But is this really a fantasy? Yes, it's a secondary world that doesn't exist, but is that all it really takes to make a fantasy? I'm serious in asking this, because that'll make brainstorming for possible fantasy novels much easier, but come on! Maybe there's something more fantasy-esque in the other Riverside books that allow this one to be labeled as such, but there's not the slightest inkling of magic or other non-human creatures/races. There's talk of kings, and there's even single references to magic and dragons (totaling to two references for both, at least, that's what I noticed), but is that really all it takes to make a book a fantasy?
Maybe this is part of the historical fantasy I hear so much about, or more specific, hard fantasy. I'd have to read more to be sure, but then I think of books like George R.R. Martin's A Game of Thrones. Even that book felt more like a fantasy despite all its real-world realism (then again, you had ghosts in the beginning and in the end you had dragons, but hey, every little bit helps).
I know it sounds like I'm ripping this book a new one, but frankly, I didn't go into this title expecting to love it. I'd heard too many mixed reviews from regular readers to be that hopeful, but there was a part of me hoping that maybe, just MAYBE, this book was more of a feminist fantasy than not.
Is it? Well, there's gender reversal. There's alternate sexual lifestyles. And you can't really discount the importance of the main theme, which I did find enjoyable: that women are allowed to make their own choices, and their honor is their own, not subject to the men who think they own them. Or, for that matter, not subject to society or their mothers either.
But if I want gender reversals, I'm more than happy to sit down and re-read Lane Robins's Maledicte, which does a fantastic job of disguising a woman as a man as well as sinking its teeth into complex politics. If I want alternate sexual lifestyles, or at least read about a heroine who views both men and women as sexually attractive, I'll re-read Jacqueline Carey's Kushiel's Dart, where the main theme is "Love as though wilt." Oh, and the politics in THAT book will have your head spinning. Kushner's, once I had all the pieces, I could figure out a mile away.
And the other plus to the above-mentioned books is that there's no dispute they are FANTASY. The fantasy elements are pretty obvious in both (and oddly enough, both include angels. Heh). But, maybe it just boils down to the fact that if my fantasy isn't fun and fluffy, I want it very dark and/or very serious.
But what really and truly disappointed me about this book was its lack of climax. Katherine defends her friend's honor, but we never witness the duel from her POV, nor do we get a really climatic DUEL. Katherine only duels twice, and the law of three demands that such important things come in threes, so in theory, the reader should've gotten one more duel, and one that really counted. It would've been nice to see Katherine get to fight the Lord Ferris herself in order to defend against his demand of marriage, but no, the Mad Duke goes and kills the man, which is all well and good since the core conflict of the novel is between those two men, but still, disappointing.
Katherine changes, which is a plus. She has the balls to stand up to her mother and turn away from the life she thought she always wanted, for which I applaud her for. She even questions and explores her own sexuality a bit by kissing the Black Rose, and her letters to Artemisia certainly take on the role of a paramour to his beloved. I didn't mind her hooking up with Marcus (another subplot I saw a mile away), but I had rather hoped to see her hook up with Artemisia as well. The book seemed to be leaning towards that particular climax, yet we never get it, and for that I feel cheated. Can't Katherine have both? Certainly the Coda implies both Artemisia and Marcus are focal points of her life, but in what ways, it only implies, something this book does a lot of.
Ultimately, the book delivers a happy ending and a bit of a twist, but not one I'm entirely sure the characters deserve, particularly Katherine. The more I think about it, the more I feel cheated that she never had a chance to really stand up for herself for the sake of herself, via the sword. Missed opportunities, and that's a shame. But considering how long it took for the book to finally come together into some sort of recognizable plot, it's no surprise we got the ending we did. Not that it felt rushed, but it just ended, and that's that.
There's really nothing to comment on about the writing. I've already quibbled over the POV, and I was rather put off by the level of info-dumping, particularly at the beginning of the novel. It's not to say there's not nice moments in this book, but for this reader, there was nothing memorable.
Wish I'd Borrowed It: But that's no surprise. If there were a decent local library around, I would have, so I'm glad I only bought the paperback rather than dishing out the cash for the trade or hardcover.
To say it would've made a poor choice for SHU students is an understatement. While the core message that women deserve the right to choose for themselves is a good one, the secondary world is not enough to educate readers on the conventions of fantasy and how to break them well. I think non-fantasy readers would've been rather bored with this book (except maybe those who enjoy historical fiction, but even that's questionable, because those in my program are rather picky when it comes to detail, and detail felt lacking here), and frankly, I think the bulk of the fantasy writers in our program would've been bored as well. I know it took me a while to truly be interested, and that's a shame. I hear so many wonderful things about Kushner's work, but this book was not for me, and frankly, I'm not interested in any of the other books set in this world either. Short stories I might try out one day, because I would like to see something different by this author. I have a feeling this book does not truly represent her talent and potential, and I want to see something that does.
*** = If you really want to know what was on the list and what the fantasy writers chose, just go to this post.
Next up: Write Is a Verb: Sit Down, Start Writing, No Excuses by Bill O'Hanlon