Wednesday, November 9, 2016

The Privilege of the Sword (WW)

(I started a bit before this site went into hiatus called Writing Wednesday, in which I review a book instead of a movie. Here is an attempt to resurrect that bit.)

If you frequent Audible, you have likely run across the series of Neil Gaiman Presents. One of fandom's favorite authors is using his celebrity to call attention to, and provide some excellent dramatic readings of, books he particularly likes. I recently listened to The Privilege of the Sword, by Ellen Kushner.

Short version: You have to take this on faith, but bear through the first third of the book. This one is a slow burn, but you will end the book in love with it.

I will admit that I'd never heard of this series. I don't think I'd ever even run across the author. But I'm willing to extend a lot of faith to Neil Gaiman. It also came recommended by Felicia Day, who voices the main character in the audio book. So that was good enough to get me started.

The book lies somewhere between historical fiction and fantasy. It's not quite historical, because it's not our world. But it's not quite fantasy, because there is no magic. It's a completely fictional version of what could easily be 17th-century Prague.

It's also worth noting that this book is the second book in the trilogy. I have not read the first book, though I am now intrigued to do so. Having read the first book is not necessary, though it would certainly have given a great deal of context to many of the interactions. It is pretty easy to figure out the relationships, though, and even much of the history. This is primarily because the main characters of the first book become secondary, though critical, characters of this book.

Young Katherine is a girl on the edge of womanhood. She is the only daughter of a poor country nobleman. She is ready to begin her season and find a good husband. But then a peculiar letter arrives. Her uncle, the Mad Duke Tremontaine, has requested her presence in the city, to allow him to finish her training. In return, he will pay off the family's debts.

When she arrives, things are far more complicated than she expected. She is not to be given a season. Instead, she is forced to dress exclusively in men's clothing, and taught the sword. Why? She does not know. But she has no choice. An exception to the rules of society, she soon finds herself willing to buck their traditions and play the part of a hero. But traditions exist for a reason, and those who buck them must pay a heavy price. She must also constantly wonder if her very rebellions are all part of her mad uncle's mad schemes...

To be perfectly honest, I found the first third of the book to just drag. The characters were simplistic and exaggerated. The plot was unsteady. And pointless side characters kept taking up odd amounts of screen time. I was really not sure where all this was going.

Around the middle of the book, though, it began to all change. Each of the characters developed more depth and complexity. In some cases, because of maturity. In some cases, because we learned more about them. It was as though each had started as a simple spool of thread. But as we unwound them, the threads started weaving together to produce a cloth that was amazing.

The climax builds slowly, over several scenes. And the final blow, as it were, took me quite by surprise. Over the space of a couple chapters, the author suddenly pulls on all the threads she has laid, and the cloth transforms into a beautiful, complex structure. It was breathtaking.

I began the book severely disliking the characters. I ended the book loving them. I'm not sure what exactly that says about the book, other than the author does a masterful job of teasing you along. Now I want to read it again, and see how all the threads were laid. Were the characters different, or were they just presented in a light to make them seem different? And, of course, I want to read the other books in the trilogy as well.

If you are a fan of historical romances, or swashbuckling swordplay, or just great writing, definitely look for this book. You may also want to look for it as an interesting tale of gender-bending. Lady Katherine is still very much a woman, but living in a man's clothes and pursuing a man's career changes her. By the end of the book, she exists somewhere in between. Does she embody the best of both worlds? You should judge for yourself.

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