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Ellen Kushner's "The Privilege of the Sword", an Austen-esque tale spiced with romance (and swordfights!) is a delight from start to finish.
Artemisia, a gently-reared young lady of the nobility, discovers to her shock that the process of Growing Up actually equates to "being marketed as a valuble commodity", and that she herself has no real say over the consummation of the deal. Katherine, fresh from the country, looks forward to a conventional coming-out, as befits her family's rank; however, her guardian in the City is the definitely un-conventional Mad Duke Tremontaine, and he has very different plans for her. In desperate straits, Mia finds in Katherine a lifeline, while Katherine views Mia's circumstances with horror, and finds herself feeling more than a little gratitude to her uncle for making sure she doesn't suffer similar circumstances.
Woven all around this is Kushner's rich tapestry of Riverside and the Hill, the Mad Duke Tremontaine and his outrageous antics, a delightful cast of supporting characters (Lord Michael Godwin and his lady, Rosamund, are a particular delight), and of course, Tremontaine's love for the swordsman St Vier at the heart of it all.
If you are a fan of Ellen Kushner's books, you already know all that! So let me speak now specifically about the audiobook version.
The presentation as an "illuminated audiobook" is a delight from beginning to end. Ellen Kushner as Katherine's first-person narrator, and Barbara Rosenblat as the Narrator, are perfectly droll. Felicia Day's Katherine is as fresh and vibrant as any fifteen-year-old you might know. Katherine Kellgren reads a variety of female parts, each of them distinct and amusing, while Nick Sullivan, who we loved to hate as Lord Ferris in the "Swordspoint" audiobook, reprises that role here, even more wonderfully despicable. Joe Hurley's Tremontaine is deliciously decadent-sounding. (If you're a TPOTS fan, and you're wondering, Ellen Kushner narrates the well-loved "Highcombe" scene. It's heartrending.)
A particularly enjoyable aspect of the "illuminated audiobook" is Nate Tronerud's original soundtrack music (which also incorporates some of his well-loved themes from the "Swordspoint" audiobook. Although we only get to hear bits and pieces, each theme is unique and memorable, perfectly highlighting character and mood.
27 of 27 people found this review helpful
Imagine Jane Austen teaming up with Oscar Wilde to write a historical fantasy featuring class, gender, identity, sexuality, swords, and acting (and the pursuit of single-life rather than marriage), and you catch a glimpse of Ellen Kushner's "mannerpunk" novel The Privilege of the Sword (2006).
The novel is (partly) the coming of age story of Katherine Talbert, a plucky, good-natured, and innocent fifteen-year-old daughter of a country aristocrat family in financial straits. As the action begins, the wealthy and eccentric Duke Tremontaine, AKA the Mad Duke of Riverside (his residence in the bad part of town near the docks), has written to say that if his sister will send his niece Katherine to live with him in the city for six months according to his rules, he will pay all her family's debts. Katherine wants to see the big city and envisions making a stunning appearance at fashionable balls in fine new dresses. Contrary to her expectations, though, Uncle Alec has all of her dresses removed, forces her to wear the clothes of a young man, and makes her take sword lessons from a grizzled master swordsman who calls her, "Duke boy."
The Privilege of the Sword has no supernatural events or magic, no elves or wizards, and no epic wars between good and evil. It is a fantasy by virtue of its well-imagined secondary world, a pseudo Elizabethan or Jacobean place in which the nobility has expunged kings but still lives off the labor of their "tenants," in which people drink chocolate, brandy, and wine and smoke drugs, in which in addition to aristocrats there are poets, scholars, actors, merchants, pickpockets, and prostitutes, and in which the nobles wield the privilege of the sword, the right to decide their feuds by hiring professional swordsmen to duel matters out.
Among the many themes interestingly worked out by The Privilege of the Sword is the difficult but vital need for women to become independent and free to express their true selves in a male-oriented world. The gadfly Duke wants to transform his niece into a swordsman to free her from the usual fate of upper class women, who typically end up having to marry philandering and or abusive husbands. One of the refreshing things about the novel is that Katherine never attempts to hide her gender when she's dressing up in guys' clothes and sporting her sword and dagger. And Kushner writes other interesting female characters who are trying to get by in that man's world, like the Black Rose, a charismatic actress, and Teresa Grey, a "woman of quality" who secretly writes popular plays for the theater.
In addition to gender themes, Kushner expresses an open-minded view of sexuality. Katherine, for example, is attracted to both the Black Rose and to Alec's servant-ward Marcus, and another of the compelling developments in the novel is the frank and humorous awakening of her sexual self. And readers familiar with Kushner's first Riverside novel, Swordspoint (1987), will recall the romantic love between Alec and the master swordsman Richard St. Vier, which The Privilege of the Sword develops eighteen years after the events of the earlier book.
Kushner also writes interesting themes relating to identity and acting. Katherine reads a sensational romantic novel, The Swordsman Whose Name Was Not Death, watches a play based on it, and begins thinking of her own actions and those of her friend Artemisia Fitz-Levy in terms of the characters and the actors portraying them. Lucius Perry, a handsome young nobleman, plays different roles as male prostitute, heterosexual lover, faithful cousin, and noble scion. And to what degree does the Duke feign his "madness" to discomfit his peers? The line between acting and being one's true self is blurry, and not just for professional actors.
At times I tired of Katherine's superficial and hysterical aristo friend Artemisia ("The only time I pick up a book is to throw it at my maid" is her best line), and the climactic showdown between Lord Ferris and Duke Alec discomforted me, but I found the resolution of the story delightful and still continue to savor Kushner's characters.
I had a great time listening to the audiobook version of The Privilege of the Sword.
I really like Kushner's reading of the first person chapters narrated from the voice of Katherine (spunky and clear) and Barbara Rosenblat's reading of the third person narration of the other chapters (husky and androgynous), and the different audiobook "luminaries" who read the voices of the different characters in the "illuminated" sections (specially important or intense scenes). I especially enjoyed Joe Hurly's decadent drawl as the Mad Duke, sounding like Oscar Wilde bathing in a hot tub full of turquoise absinthe.
I have mixed feelings about the occasional sound effects sprinkled throughout the audiobook, door knockings, paper rustlings, owl hootings, boot clackings, sword clangings, and so on. Often these are implied or directly mentioned by the text, as when the narration mentions how Katherine’s sword "rattled and clanged," and we hear the sound effect of a sword rattling and clanging. Even moments like when the narration says someone leaves a room and we hear the sound of a door closing, which at least are not redundant, felt more intrusive than immersive. On the other hand, the music beautifully and appropriately enhances the moods of the various scenes, and is more appealing and original than the majority of movie music these days.
In conclusion, fans of Swordspoint would love The Privilege of the Sword, and anyone interested in fantasy that focuses on social customs, psychological conflicts, and witty dialogue should enjoy it.
22 of 22 people found this review helpful
It's just occurred to me that these books: Swordspoint, The Privilege of the Sword, The Fall of the Kings, would make a great TV series. It's such a fully realized world with lots of intrigue and fascinatingly amoral characters.
As ever, it's crucial to read the books in the right order. However, I think this is my favourite of the three. Maybe it's that I found Catherine, blundering naively around Riverside, making unsuitable challenges as she goes, really charming.
Ellen Kushner is a great narrator and I enjoy the dramatic scenes and music very much.
2 of 2 people found this review helpful
I loved this long-awaited audio book. Katherine's voice is delightful - so innocent and excited at the beginning of the story, and developing into a much more mature viewpoint as the narrator grows up. Joe Hurley is terrific as the dissolute 'Mad Duke', and captures his lazy, drawling voice (and his abject misery) well.
The scenes with Katherine and Marcus as intrepid investigators are great, and I love their rivalry: 'Marcus, you rat!'
The 'enhanced' sections of the book are wonderful, and really bring the cast of characters to life.
1 of 1 people found this review helpful