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The Privilege of the Sword by Ellen Kushner
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Like its predecessor, Swordspoint, The Privilege of the Sword is a fun, clever book that doesn’t quite deserve 4 stars.... but 3 would be selling it too short.

This is a 20-years-later sequel to Swordspoint; it has its own plot and protagonist and doesn’t demand that you read Swordspoint first, but it’ll make more sense if you do. Katherine, a 15-year-old from a minor noble family in the country, is summoned to the city by her uncle Alec, the Mad Duke, who’s determined to make a swordsman of her. The somewhat cheesy premise develops in an unconventional way: Katherine would prefer ballgowns and parties but begins to come around once she reads a trashy novel romanticizing swordsmen, and she acquires some skill through hard work but doesn’t become one of those eyeroll-inducing teen prodigies common in fantasy. (view spoiler)

Generous amounts of intrigue and adventure make this a fun novel, and I liked it better than Swordspoint primarily because Katherine is a more engaging and likeable protagonist. She’s a bit silly, but unlike with most such protagonists, her naïveté is endearing rather than annoying. She’s lively enough to be enjoyable, and has just enough depth to be realistic. The character development overall isn’t unusually deep, and there are some missteps--in particular Artemisia, who reads more like a tired parody of a shallow rich girl than an actual person, and whose relationship with Katherine makes little sense--but the cast is colorful and certainly keeps things interesting.

The book is fluidly written, and with believable dialogue. It explains more than Swordspoint, but does so without awkward info-dumps. The switching between Katherine’s first-person point of view and a roving third-person, while a bit odd, works fairly well, and Katherine’s voice is distinct from the third-person narrator’s. The setting is also enjoyable: the society is well-developed and feels realistic, and Kushner illuminates it through subtle details rather than through ostentatious invention.

The thematics are good too: there’s a smart examination of power and privilege, which feels natural and not heavy-handed. And I enjoyed the characters’ interactions with the book-turned-play, “The Swordsman Whose Name Was Not Death.” Books about books ordinarily don’t work for me, because to best enjoy them you need to share the author’s favorites; but by using an invented story, Kushner is able to capture much of what it feels like to be swept away by a book (and later see it adapted) in a more universal way, without tying it to a real-life work. The contrast between that story--apparently a melodramatic, swashbuckling romance--and this one provides food for thought, as well as several humorous moments.

The biggest problem with The Privilege of the Sword is the plot.... namely, its lack of structure. Interesting things happen, but tension never builds to a climax, and the scene that wants to be a climax happens in the protagonist's absence--Katherine doesn’t even find out about it until afterwards. Extraneous subplots take up disproportionate space; it’s unclear what Lucius and Teresa, for instance, are even doing in the book. Katherine’s romance is on the dull side, disappointing after more interesting possibilities for her are dangled early in the book. And the end is rushed; the final twist carries enough difficulties and complications to be a book unto itself, rather than simply being passed off as a happy ending.

So this is really a 3.5-star book, but I’m rounding up because it is so fun and smart. Also, I love it when authors create secondary worlds without including magical elements, and as this type of fantasy is still all too rare, I’m inclined to be generous.
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