Book review x 2: Swordspoint and Privilege of the Sword, by Ellen Kushner

So… I finished reading these two books a couple of days ago, but haven’t had time to write and do them justice. This is rather a pity, because it has meant I’ve had to start reading other books, and I wasn’t really ready to leave that world. It’s also a pity that I read Privilege of the Sword before writing a review of Swordspoint, because it has, I think, coloured my view of the first book.

Where to start? Both books are set in a world that seems like a cross between Georgette Heyer’s regency London and 18th century Paris, and the world of Dangerous Liaisons. The intrigue, however, is largely political rather than sexual (which is not to say that sex does not play a part in the political intrigue – it clearly does), and, thank goodness, there are no stupid-but-virtuous pawns. Actually, there isn’t much conventional virtue to be seen anywhere, but the virtuous characters – and the rather more prevalent sympathetic characters – are in general as intelligent as the more appalling ones, which is a great relief. I particularly like what I can’t help seeing as a glimpse of what Mme de Merteuil might have been, had she turned her energies to politics. I’m not telling you which of the two books she is in, though. That would be cheating.

In this world, disputes are settled by duels – but not generally between the actual disputants; instead, hired swordsmen challenge their targets, who may fight the duel themselves or, more usually, have it fought by their own hired swordsman. As a result, the pawns in this game of politics are in fact the swordsmen, who have no political power in themselves, but are hardly helpless. In ‘Swordspoint’, the central characters are almost all male: Richard St Vier, the protagonist, is probably the best swordsman of his time, much in demand among members of the nobility, who attempt to hire him to achieve both political and romantic ends. His lover is the mysterious and highly irritating Alec. Neither are precisely helpless in this game, although the balance of power certainly leans toward the nobility. And I have to mention here that St Vier is seriously hot.

In ‘Privilege of the Sword’, set 20 years later, we learn who the real pawns in this society are, something that has really only been hinted at in the previous book. The role of women in this world is very circumscribed, very much at the mercy of family and husbands, and often highly unpleasant. And you can’t hide from that while reading it – this book is very dark in places (the dark side of the Regency romance) – all the bits that get hinted at in Heyer (or Austen, for that matter) but not mentioned, and then some. At the same time, it’s a very feminist book, and at least one of the chief movers of pawns has a very interesting agenda indeed. This book centres around the teenage heroine, Kate, whose uncle, the Mad Duke, requires her to become a swordsman – much against her will, and something completely unheard of for a woman. There is something of the coming-of-age feel to this book, as we watch Kate grow into herself and her role. There are reappearances of characters from Swordspoint, some delightful, others chilling. And the way it all comes together at the end is delightful, and makes up for the scary dark stuff.

The books are in some senses romances – in that the romantic attachments of the central characters provide motivations for a lot of the action, and mirror each other in interesting ways. Though they are not entirely conventional relationships, either; Richard and Alec in the first book, while clearly in love, have a fascinating relationship which I can’t quite fathom, but which still rings true. Kate, in the ‘Privilege of the Sword’, appears to be somewhat in love with at least two different characters through most of the book, and has briefer infatuations with several others (which makes a certain amount of sense – she is 15 or 16, and there is a lot of fascinated curiosity about sexual relationships in her book).

Both books have that Ellen Kushner quality of completely dragging you into the world she is writing about, so that I can’t escape and don’t want to (although I certainly would not want to live there). Both have the kind of characterisation that makes you want to keep spending time with the characters after the book is over. And both leave me wanting to read them again, slowly, to try to work out what is really going on.

I really, really recommend these. But you can’t have my copies. I need to reread them.

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