I love reading and listening to books, especially fantasy, science fiction, children's, historical, and classics.
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.
Helene Wecker's fine first novel The Golem and the Jinni (2013) opens with the separate unintentional immigrations to NYC in 1899 of a masterless female golem from Poland and a bound male jinni from the Syrian desert. Wecker recounts with fascinating detail the attempts of the two supernatural beings to pass as human in their new Jewish (golem) and Syrian (jinni) Manhattan immigrant communities. The golem has awakened to life on the ship over to America, so she is only a few days old, but the jinni has been imprisoned in a flask for a thousand years, and in addition to the 1899 plot strand, Wecker reveals little by little the jinni's past and how he came to be bound in human form and by whom. While sharing some traits (superhuman strength and agility, fluency in any human language, and the inability to sleep or digest food), the golem and the jinni also have different abilities and personalities. Because the golem's master dies en route to NYC, her innate need to satisfy a master renders her ultra-sensitive to the desires and fears of every person in her proximity. The jinni, essentially a creature of air and fire, chafes at being trapped in human form but excels at doing metal work and lighting cigarettes with his bare hands. The golem is more cautious, prudish, conservative, and empathetic, the jinii more irresponsible, liberated, creative, and selfish. One of the pleasures of the novel is watching the personalities of the two protagonists develop as their plot strands weave ever closer together.
I enjoyed the fresh perspectives of the jinni and the golem about such things as the puzzling human belief in irrational religions and inconvenient social codes, the mystifying construction of large decorative marble arches that lead to or from nowhere, the magical transformations into bread and cake of dough when baked, the dark fascination of aquariums, the claustrophobic nature of commuter trains, the perfection of chicken eggs, and so on.
I cared for the characters, from the two protagonists (so human despite their supernatural differences and belief in their own inhumanity) down to the supporting players like the kind and moral Rabbi Meyer and his honest and naïve nephew Michael Levy, the circumspect tinsmith Boutros Arbeely, the quiet boy Matthew, the tragic ice cream vendor Saleh, the bored and daydreamy heiress Sophia Winston, the heart-of-her-community coffeehouse mistress Maryam Faddoul, the bickering bakery owning Radzins, and even, at times, oddly enough, the abhorrent wizard villain. I enjoyed spending time with them.
I was also impressed by Wecker's evocation of sublime, filthy, and vigorous 1899 NYC, its different districts devoted to the detached wealthy, the squalid poor, and various immigrant groups; it's expansive parks and noisy elevated trains and sordid rooftop demimonde.
The novel also has plenty of good writing, many funny, moving, suspenseful, ironic, or beautiful passages. As when the jinni "comfort[s] himself with the thought that although he might be forced to live like a human, he'd never truly be one," speculates that "perhaps this God of the humans is just a jinni like myself, stuck in the heavens, forced to grant wishes," and rides the Elevated train between two cars: "The noise was deafening, a rattle and screech that penetrated his entire body. Sparks from the track leapt past, blown by a violent wind. Lamp-lit windows flashed by in bright, elongated squares. At Fifty-ninth street he jumped out from between the cars, still shaking."
Other choice passages are the detailed description of the jinni's mesmerizing tin ceiling map-picture of his home desert, down to "a miniscule boar, stout and barrel-chested, the last of the sun glinting off tin-plated tusks," and the moment when the golem sees the jinni for the first time: "His face--and his hands as well, she saw now--shone with that warm light, like a lamp shaded with gauze. She watched him come nearer, unable to take her eyes away."
And the novel is often very funny, as when Radzin and his wife talk about a boy who compulsively counted everything until he died young:
"But he died, the year before we left. A mule kicked him in the head. " She paused, and then said, "I always wondered if he provoked it deliberately."
Radzin snorted. "Suicide by mule."
"Everyone knew that animal had a temper."
Upon reflection, I suppose that the climax of the novel, though suspenseful and satisfying, is a little too iffy and cinematic, but the book pulses with human life, wisdom, stories, and interesting themes, like the balance between autonomy and servitude in our souls and lives, the nature of love, the quality of community, and the vigorous attraction of the modern city.
This is the first book that I have heard Robert Guidall read, and I quickly became enamored of his savory and compassionate voice. In fact, I suspect that his intelligent, restrained, and sensitive reading of the novel (from his quiet golem to his flighty jinni) increased or enhanced my appreciation of it. I will listen to more books read by him.
Fans of romantic historical urban fantasy (if it is a genre) would probably enjoy this book.
What was this experience that just warped my sense of reality, fantasy, beauty, and story? Viriconium. How can words describe the city? ???I???m a dwarf, not a philosopher!??? And the past of Viriconium is so vast that it ???made of the air a sort of amber, an entrapment.??? As the caf?? philosophers say, ???The world is so old that the substance of reality no longer knows quite what it ought to be.???
The first novel, The Pastel City (1971), in which a morose poet-swordsman named tegeus-Cromis leads a raggedy bunch of legends in an attempt to save Viriconium from Northern barbarians, reminds me of Michael Moorcock???s Elric or Corum wandering Jack Vance???s Dying Earth. If you like dark epic science fantasy, you???d love this.
In A Storm of Wings (1980), Galen Hornwrack, a bitter aristocratic assassin, becomes caught up in a quest to protect Viriconium from an alien insect reality invasion. Recalling Lewis Carroll and Philip K. Dick, this novel was the most densely and richly written Viriconium and hence the most challenging to listen to. Superficial skimmers of pages steer clear!
Evoking Laurel and Hardy, Oscar Wilde, and Kafka, In Viriconium (1980) depicts the milquetoast portrait artist Ashlyme trying to complete a commission and to save his subject as a plague of attenuation spreads through the city. This is the most funny and disturbing novel of the three, as well as the most difficult to understand, as the reality of Viriconium warps and ramifies.
The collection of seven short stories called Viriconium Nights (1985) nightmarishly develops the mirroring of alternate Viriconiums until characters reappear with similar or different names, careers, lives, and deaths, the city accrues overlapping names, rulers, and histories, and finally we are left in our real world desperately seeking Viriconium, which is, after all, only a fiction (isn???t it?).
M. John Harrison???s sad beauty and humorous grotesquery, his painterly, poetic, and pregnant descriptions of landscapes, buildings, and people, his explorations of time, memory, reality, art, and love, his flawed and moving characters and the overwhelming city they live in, leave from, or long for, provide a deep and altering dream. He makes new his ancient Evening Earth and our real world.
Simon Vance???s urbane and warm voice relishes Viriconium and makes listening to it an affecting and absorbing experience. Just hearing him talk like a lamia or croon ???Ou lou loo lou loo??? is worth the price of admission.