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The Privilege of the Sword    by Ellen Kushner order for
Privilege of the Sword
by Ellen Kushner
Order:  USA  Can
Spectra, 2006 (2006)
Softcover, e-Book

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* *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

In The Privilege of the Sword, Ellen Kushner takes us back to the fantasy world we enjoyed so much in Swordspoint - her creation seems to me to be a cross between the elegant wit and manners of a Georgette Heyer novel and something swashbuckling by Alexandre Dumas. It's a society whose nobility forcibly undid the monarchy. Now they settle disputes amongst themselves by dueling, via their privilege of the sword.

Fifteen-year-old Lady Katherine Samantha Campion Talbert lives with her mother in the country. It's an impoverished life because her uncle, Alec Campion, the rich, dissolute, socialist Mad Duke of Tremontaine, has a longstanding grudge against his sister and has kept her dowry tied up in lawsuits and inaccessible to her, despite its being badly needed after her husband's death. Now, Katherine's uncle writes, offering to end the lawsuits and be 'very generous' if his niece agrees to come to him at Tremontaine House and train to be a swordsman. She has little choice but to agree.

Though mad (by societal standards) and wild, Alec Campion has interesting associates - he studies mathematics with the highly intelligent Ugly Girl, Flavia; the boy Marcus, whom he rescued from abuse and misery, worships him and remains happily at his beck and call; he is involved with the Black Rose, 'the toast of the city, the honor of the stage'; and he loves legendary swordsman Richard St. Vier, whose vision is limited and who has found refuge in a cottage at Tremontaine's Highcombe estate. The Mad Duke also has a longstanding enemy, one-eyed Lord Ferris, Crescent Chancellor of the Council of Lords, a very clever - and very sleazy - politician.

At first, Katherine is unhappy and finds it very strange to have to dress as a man and study the sword, but gradually she finds her own way. She becomes skilled with sword and dagger and befriends both Marcus and the lively Lady Artemesia Fitz-Levy - who is coming out and whose parents set their sights high for her marriage partner. Katherine and Marcus begin to follow a young nobleman who visits the Duke, and has both unsavory associations and obviously strong feelings for a noblewoman. The latter is disdained by most of society for having left her mad husband after suffering regular beatings at his hands. Katherine is also trained by St. Vier and grows very fond of him.

The plot thickens after Artemesia is betrothed to Lord Ferris. At first she's flattered by his attentions and her 'gilded fate', but then he does something that disgusts and repels her. Her family insist that the marriage go ahead and only Katherine takes Artemesia's side, challenging Ferris's swordsman to a duel. The Crescent Chancellor assumes she's done it at Tremontaine's instigation and attacks several around the Mad Duke, leading him to act, with major consequences for everyone around him. It makes a very satisfactory ending to a fascinating story. I hope for more in the world of Swordspoint and The Privilege of the Sword.

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