Friday, January 11, 2008

Lisa's Take - The Privilege of the Sword (Ellen Kushner)

I’ll just come out and say this one up front: The Privilege of the Sword was decent, but really not as good as I’d been lead to believe. It won a number of awards, and I had several people squee at me about it; perhaps my hopes had just been brought too high. Certainly it was enjoyable, and I tore through it pretty quickly, but I never really got much in the way of emotional attachment to any of the characters, nor did it particularly surprise me.

Hmm. Let me stop and re-think that. I’m a big liar – I should rephrase. I never really got much in the way of emotional attachment to any of the main characters. But I’m getting ahead of myself, let me take a step back and give a plot overview.

Katherine is 15 and her family has lived their whole lives in the shadow of a debt imposed by her crazy uncle, who also happens to be a duke. For Reasons That Become Clear Throughout The Novel, the Mad Duke is miffed with his sister (Katherine’s mother) and does his best to make her married life miserable. Then one day Katherine’s family receives a letter saying that if they would be obliged to send Katherine to the city for 6 months of isolation with her uncle, he would forgive the debt. Sinister overtones set aside, Katherine’s family agrees and ships her off. Turns out the Mad Duke wants to teach Katherine to be a sword fighter, among other things. The novel follows Katherine’s life under the Mad Duke’s tutelage.

Like I said, I never really formulated much attachment with Katherine, though I was fairly impressed by how she was developed throughout the course of the book. I think that if I were a little younger she might have struck more of an emotional chord with me - though I don’t believe young teenagers are really the intended audience for the book, given the rampant sexual situations. But then I was a pretty naïve teenager, so I could be wrong.

While I didn’t ever find myself particularly attached to Katherine, I did get fairly emotionally involved in a couple of the sub-plots. Katherine spends some time studying in a secluded country location with a mysterious teacher – looking back on the book, that certainly was my favorite arc. The tones and feelings of the environment were incredibly well developed and quite poignant, and Mysterious Teacher was one of the best written characters. I found out later the reason he was written so well was likely that he has appeared in another one of her books, but that hardly detracted from my enjoyment.

I think one of the most interesting things about the book was the authors approach to sex. Very, very many fantasy authors tend to “pan to the ceiling” during sex scenes, or omit them completely, or romanticize and flower-ize them. Kushner did none of that – sexuality was just out there in a very natural way. There were girls who liked girls and boys who liked boys, and every combination thereof, and none of it seemed either contrived or abashed. I approve.

Another interesting aspect of The Privilege of the Sword was the way in which the story used a book that Katherine had read – weaving bits and pieces of it in and out of the plotline, revealing different tidbits as they became poignant to the primary tale. I remember very clearly being Katherine’s age and being just as caught up in the books I was reading then, so the approach really resonated with me.

My, that turned out to be quite a lot more text than I was expecting. Having re-visited many of the things about the book that I liked, I feel compelled to revise my evaluation from “decent” to “very good.” It still didn’t quite live up to the expectations that had been set for it, but it was a very enjoyable read. Amusingly, after I finished this book I realized I tried to read another of Kushner’s books a couple of years ago, but put it down after the obligatory 100 pages because it wasn’t holding my attention. Having enjoyed The Privilege of the Sword as much as I did, however, I feel like I might have to go back and give it another try.

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