Once, in a nameless city, in the poor and dangerous neighborhood known as Riverside, a swordsman and his lover were entangled in the aristocrats' power struggles. Their story was told in Ellen Kushner's Swordspoint, which introduced us to a world of wit and beauty mingled with malicious intent, where the allure of the sword is set against the hard reality of a hired swordsman's existence. The Privilege of the Sword (New York, NY: Bantam Spectra, 2006) returns to that world a generation later and views it through the eyes of those standing in the shadows of power.
The story starts with Katherine Samantha Campion Talbert. Katherine comes from a noble family whose estate has fallen upon hard times, thanks to her uncle, the Mad Duke Tremontaine, who has never forgiven his sister for marrying a man she didn't want to marry. As a well-bred young woman, Katherine dreams of "the city, the parties, the glitter and gallants, fine clothes and rare company" (28) and of finding a suitable husband. However, her hopes are dashed by the duke, who offers to reverse his actions against the estate if she comes to the city to take up the sword, hardly a pursuit suitable for a lady. The duke believes that this profession may provide her security if marriage fails her. Since the family has few options left, Katherine accepts the arrangement.
Katherine is a reluctant student but not one without promise. But it takes a book, The Swordsman Whose Name Is Not Death (familiar to those who have read Kushner's short story of the same name), to kindle in her the desire for the sword and her disgust at viewing her first duel, over something she considers a triviality rather than a question of justice, to mark her change into a serious student. Although Katherine's appearance invites ridicule—the terms of her deal involve dressing in a man's clothes—the swordsman's code and her burgeoning ability afford her a kind of protection heretofore denied women, whose "honor is still the property of [their] male relatives" (68). The Mad Duke is not without his reasons, and Katherine herself is not oblivious to this as she becomes wiser about the pitfalls of the dazzling world she now inhabits. For Katherine's story, and the stories of those around her, concern privilege: who has it, who doesn't have it, and the consequences it brings.
The Mad Duke, who, for all his debauches and eccentricities, has not forgotten his past, has his own sideways notion of reform and the debt owed by the privileged. At one point, the duke is dictating responses to his correspondence as his friend Flavia, the Ugly Girl, listens:
"Now, this is a grateful letter from the Orphans' Asylum, thanking you for the beds and the new roof and inviting you to their Harvest Pageant, where the children will sing, dance and recite . . . ," [said the secretary.]
"Regrets." The duke grimaced. "Just regrets. Ignore the other nonsense."
The Ugly Girl swung her foot under her. "You founded the place. Why don't you want to go?"
"I don't like children," the duke replied.
"Then why put out all that money to preserve them?"
"Because it is wrong to let them die." The duke shook the foam of lace at his cuff, each flower and petal and leaf twisted thread upon thread by the fingers of an artist. "I did nothing to deserve this. I got it all because I had a grandmother with lots of money who left it to me. Before that I lived in two rooms in Riverside. I saw what happened to the products of a moment's pleasure. Other people do not deserve to starve or to be fucked before they know what the word means, just because they have no one." (66)
A former university student, the duke acts as a patron for Flavia, who is a scholar in mathematics at a time when, it is implied, few women scholars are accepted. Indeed, some of the duke's gatherings are devoted to poetry and philosophy, pursuits of the mind rather than the pursuits of the flesh for which he has become notorious. His servant, Marcus, also comes from Riverside, with all that implies, and soon becomes one of Katherine's friends. Although many believe that he is another of the duke's lovers, there is a different truth to Marcus's history.
The duke has enemies, of course. One such, Anthony Deverin, Lord Ferris, is now Crescent Chancellor, and his political maneuvers stand in opposition to the duke's plans. Katherine's friend Artemisia Fitz-Levi, who has the life that Katherine wanted for herself, becomes entangled with the Crescent Chancellor and discovers firsthand how few protections even noblewomen have for themselves. Katherine is determined to champion her friend when Artemisia's own family proves less than sympathetic, and The Swordsman Whose Name Was Not Death, which Artemisia has also read, inspires them to hope they can hold honor in their own right.
Katherine's own chameleonic status as woman, noble, and swordsman enables her to test society's notions of what all three should be. Dissatisfied with the prevailing state of affairs, with the arbitrariness of privilege, Katherine finds ways to redress the imbalance. She finds she holds more ideals in common with her erratic uncle than she thought; that her idea and his of the sword's proper applications are very similar.
The novel is not only concerned with inequality but with the means by which the underprivileged achieve agency. In Katherine's case, it is the sword, but there are others. She and Marcus become interested in Lucius Perry, a nobleman who works at a brothel in order to explore his own boundaries; Perry's mistress is a woman who escaped an unbearable marriage in order to define a new life for herself as an artist. The Black Rose, another former denizen of Riverside, wields influence as a notorious actress, and her less-than-respectable calling affords her more freedom than is commonly available to women. Appropriately, then, the novel ends with an overturning of the old order, with those in the shadows claiming their place in the light.
The Privilege of the Sword, for all its serious underpinnings, is a delight to read, with colorful, well-defined characters and a droll sense of humor. For newcomers, it is a sparkling introduction to Riverside's intrigues. For those returning to the setting after Swordspoint, The Fall of the Kings (cowritten with Delia Sherman), or various of the short stories set there, The Privilege of the Sword is a welcome addition with plenty of nods to familiar characters as well as past and future events revealed in the other stories.
Yoon Ha Lee's fiction has appeared in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet, and Sybil's Garage. She is a section editor at the Internet Review of Science Fiction. "Eating Hearts," a fantasy short story based loosely on Korean folklore, appeared in Year's Best Fantasy 6, edited by David Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer. Yoon can be reached here.