The Privilege of the Sword by Ellen Kushner

“No one sends for a niece they’ve never seen before just to annoy her family and ruin her life. That, at least, is what I thought. This was before I had ever been to the city. I had never been in a duel, or held a sword myself. I had never kissed anyone, or had anyone try to kill me, or worn a velvet cloak. I had certainly never met my uncle the Mad Duke. Once I met him, much was explained.” (p. 3)

That’s how you open the follow-up to a perfect book. The Privilege of the Sword starts about fifteen years after Swordspoint, and follows the fortunes of Katherine, the first-person narrator who was born around the time of the other novel’s events and raised as a proper country gentlewoman in one of the lesser branches of the Tremontaine family. She helps her mother in managing their modest estates, keeping track of the spoons and suchlike, until one day. Duke Tremontaine has been hounding his sister’s family with lawsuits over bits of property, never quite ruining them, but also giving them to know that if he ever turned his resources to the task, he surely could. Katherine’s family has been adjusted to the death of her father; one brother has gone to the city to try to make his fortune, the other cannot be spared because he is actually good at farming and stewardship, while Katherine and her mother keep up the domestic side of things, as well as appearances. Mother and daughter both harbor hopes that she will go to the city and make a good match. They are getting by when the lawsuits return, threatening to tie up their income and cost more lawyers than they can possibly afford. And then a letter arrives, turning things upside down again.

And now here was the Mad Duke, actually inviting us to the city to be his guests at Tremontaine House. My mother looked troubled, but I knew such an invitation could mean only one thing: an end to the horrible lawsuits, the awful letters. Surely all was forgiven and forgotten. We would go to town and take our place among the nobility there at last, with parties and dancing and music and jewels and clothes—I threw my arms around my mother’s waist and hugged her warmly. ‘Oh, Mama! I knew no one could stay angry with you forever. I am so happy for you!’
But she pulled away from me. ‘Don’t be. The entire thing is ridiculous. It’s out of the question. (p. 6)

Katherine is mistaken; much of the novel’s early parts are concerned with how very many different things Katherine is mistaken about.

‘Katherine Samantha.’ She looked away from the past, and directly at me. ‘You have not been listening to what I’ve been telling you. It’s you he wishes to see.’
‘Me! But—but— Why?’
She shook her head. ‘Oh, it’s too ridiculous even to contemplate.’
‘Mother.’ I took both her hands in mine. ‘You cannot say that and expect me to go on counting silver as if nothing had happened. It is impossible. What does he want to see me about?’
‘He says he wants to make a swordsman of you.’
I laughed—well, I snorted, actually. If I’d had anything in my mouth, it would have flown across the room. That sort of laugh.
‘Just so,’ she said. ‘You go live with him and study the sword, and in return he’ll not only drop the lawsuits, he’ll pay off all our debts, and—well, he’s prepared to be very generous.’
I began to see, or thought I did. ‘He wants me to come to the city. To Tremontaine House,’ I breathed. ‘To make our fortune.’
She said, ‘Of course, the thing is impossible.’
‘But Mother,’ I said, ‘what about my duty to my family?’ (p. 8)

That last had been her mother’s reason for marrying her father in the first place, and it carries the day for Katherine as well. But she is on a collision course, not least with her uncle. Here is how he sees the situation:

…’I do not make the rules,’ he said creamily. ‘This annoys me, and so I comfort myself by breaking them. She is my favorite sister’s—my only sister’s—youngest child. I shall ensure that she has a distinctive and useful trade to follow, should the family fortunes fail. Or should the Good Marriage that is every noble’s daughter’s ambition prove elusive or less than satisfactory. A distinctive and a useful trade … It is, alas, too late for her older brothers to learn anything, really. And, anyway, I think one sword in the family is enough, don’t you?’ (p. 12)

(One of the Duke’s brilliant friends immediately calls this speech, “Crap … utter crap. You must really hate your sister a lot.” (p. 12))

And here is how Katherine sees the situation:

I had always known that I must go to the city, because that is where one goes to make one’s fortune these days. Men go there to take their seat on the Council of Lords and meet influential people; girls go to make a brilliant match with a man of property and excellent family. …
Now I was headed for one of the most glorious houses in the city, at the invitation of the Duke Tremontaine himself. The lawsuit would be withdrawn, my dowry restored, if not, indeed, doubled. …
I had no doubt that I was doing the right thing, and that all would be well. My uncle might have quarreled with the rest of the family, but he’d never met me. Of course I would have to prove myself to him at first; that’s why he had set up the rules [Katherine is not to contact her family for six months, among other rules]. I was going to be tested for courage, for endurance, for loyalty and other virtues. Once I had demonstrated my worthiness, I would be revealed to the world in my true guise and reap the rewards. The masked ball would turn to wedding feast, the silly comedy to glorious romance with myself as heroine. First disguise, then revelation. That was how it worked. What else could the story possibly be?” (pp. 12–14)

What else indeed. The Duke has other plans for Katherine, and dresses and balls are not among them. Further, his attitude toward rules noted above, to say nothing of his considerable wealth and power have made the list of his enemies longer rather than shorter. His need for a swordsman who cannot be bribed away is as practical as his desire to upend the city’s customs by having someone both a noble and a woman train to the sword is outlandish. Nor are the traditions of swordsmen the only ones that Tremontaine has a mind to shake up. Worse, he practices publicly many of the supposed vices that other nobles practice in secret; his very openness is a challenge to their hypocrisy, and a fair number of them would be happy to see him fall for that reason. Or arrange for him to fall.

Katherine is dropped into the nest of intrigue with a country gentlewoman’s upbringing, which leaves her vulnerable in many expected ways. She’s smart, though, and learns fast; she’s determined; and she enjoys (if that’s the word) Tremontaine’s erratic patronage. Soon enough she’s developing her own ideas, and maybe even gathering enough resources to turn the tables. On whom, though, is unclear.

As a standalone novel, The Privilege of the Sword would be a splendid fantasy of manners, a terrific coming-of-age story, along with a sharp poke at the gender conventions of the genre. As a companion to Swordspoint, it’s even more. Where the earlier novel was a story of two young people against a world that cares not a whit about them, The Privilege of the Sword is, finally, a novel about families, how they get broken and how they can somewhat be repaired, how chosen families reflect and refract families of birth, and what happens to the devil-may-care when someone truly does care. A privilege to read.

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