Saturday, August 11, 2007

Review: The Privilege of the Sword

In 1987, Ellen Kushner burst upon the fantasy scene with stunning debut novels like Swordspoint and Thomas the Rhymer. With her mastery of language and her delightful characters and prose, I was spellbound with her books and short stories, and waited for further novels.

The wait was long, and somehow, I missed The Fall of Kings a few years ago, but upon reading that The Privilege of the Sword had just come out, I reserved it at the local library.

I'm disappointed to say that for me, at least, the magic is gone. The brilliant language that opened Swordspoint is nowhere in evident in this novel, and the insights into characters so artfully exposed in the 3rd person narrative in that novel is also largely gone, as most of the story is told in the first person by Katherine Talbert, a cousin of Alec Campion who, due to family obligations, is obliged to study the sword to relieve her mother of debt.

The study of martial arts by a neophyte must be the subject of hundreds of novels and movies by now (who can forget Jackie Chan in Drunken Master, or the brilliant Snake in the Eagle's Shadow). But for a Western audience, this is perhaps an unusual topic, and possibly even a first with a female protagonist. Over the next 6 months under various tutors, Katherine becomes a competent swordswoman, and begins developing a new personality, a heroic do-gooder based on the romantic novels she reads while learning swordsmanship.

The novel flips back and forth between Katherine's perspective and a 3rd person narrative expositing the machinations between Lords in the Council of Lords ruling the city of Riverside. Unfortunately, there are too many distractions in too short a space, and the novel never gets past petty rivalries and a few sideshows that are much less interesting than Katherine Talbert. Unfortunately, those who look for a climax as exciting as in the aforementioned Jackie Chan movies will be extremely disappointed. The story ends in a perhaps classic fairy-tale fashion, but feels forced: I definitely hoped for more from the characters than a willingness to settle for status quo.

Naturally, even bad Ellen Kushner is still pretty good, and the book is worth reading, just disappointing if you're used to her previous high standards. Worth your time to check out at the library, but not worth purchasing.
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