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.
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.
If you like non-supernatural fantasies with lots of sword fighting (most with words, some with swords), witty dialogue, vivid descriptions, charismatic characters, explorations of power, politics, and honor, you should give Ellen Kushner???s Swordspoint a try. (It even features a perfect parody of a Jacobethan revenge tragedy.)
The setting of Swordspoint is an Elizabethan or Jacobean-like city comprised of the Hill, atop which the power-scheming and pleasure-partying nobles live their lives of privilege, and Riverside, the lower district of derelict mansions where the riffraff (rogues, whores, pickpockets, and swordsmen, professional duelist-assassin-bodyguards who sell their swords to aristocratic contracts) live their sordid lives.
Kushner creates appealing and flawed characters, among them Richard, an illiterate, intelligent, usually self-possessed swordsman, Alec, an aristocratic, sardonic, occasionally suicidal ex-scholar, and Michael, a callow gigolo Lord who wants to be taken seriously. Their intertwining stories are absorbing and unpredictable. All of her characters feel like real people, with pasts and ambitions, loves and hates. And gird your loins for a seductively human and frank (though never sensational or graphic) homosexual romance.
About the ???illuminated??? audiobook (with author Kushner reading everything, except for certain intense scenes for which different readers read different characters??? voices, and with some sound effects being used for things like doors opening, footsteps sounding, swords clashing, and fires burning, etc.), I liked it, but that may be due to my liking Swordspoint. That is, I wish Kushner had read everything without sound effects OR a cast of readers had read everything with sound effects, but I like the novel and various readers so much that I enjoyed the audiobook. And the music used to introduce or conclude intense scenes or chapters was well done.
Neil Gaiman describes Swordspoint as being what Jane Austen would write if she wrote fantasy, but Kushner???s worldview is more violent and morally ambiguous, her interests more political, and her writing more modern than Austen???s. But it is interesting to imagine Lord Darcy and Henry Tilney falling in love with each other rather than with Elizabeth Bennet and Catherine Morland!