Privilege of the Sword Novel

May 19th, 2007

You may recall that, this past February, I had the pleasure of spending the weekend with the folks from Prism Comics at New York Comic Con. One of the many cool people I had a chance to meet that weekend was author Ellen Kushner. I gave her a copy of my novel Shoujoai ni Bouken and, a few days after we spoke, I received a shiny new copy of her novel, Privilege of the Sword. I took it with me to Chicago and conveniently, it fits neatly into this week’s theme. :-)

The story follows a young woman, Katherine, as she is adopted into her uncle, the “Mad Duke”‘s household in place of lengthy and life-crushing lawsuits against her mother, the Duke’s sister. Immediately the Duke has her women’s clothes replaced with men’s and Katherine then begins to train as a swordswoman. But not out of choice. And not without resistance. Of course, she becomes a competent swordswoman…it would hardly be a fun novel if she sucked all the way through. (Although that might have made a funnier novel.) In the meantime, she comes of age in a household that is unusually free of the more typical sexual mores. In fact, the Duke, while bisexual, is well-known to prefer men. During the course of the narrative its implied that, as she comes of age and into herself, she will follow her “mad” uncle’s proclivities. In the end of the novel she’s with a man, but there’s no doubt in one’s mind that her best friend Artemisia would not be kicked out of bed. ^_^

So, what happens? Well, there’s politics and duels, intrigue and training and sex, and love and actresses and stalking and gingerbread. No religion, thank heavens. That would only complicate things. The end of the story is swift and painless, which is good because, given the setup, I was at a loss as to how it was going to end with anyone living happily ever after, much less all of them doing so. But fear not. ^_^

While Katherine may be bisexual, she in no way desires to be male (I’m not implying that these two things are in any way linked – it’s just a weak segue….) In the beginning she is *very* opposed to, and uncomfortable with, dressing as a man. If anything, she’s a pretty typical girl, who wants girl things including dresses and a noble suitor. In the same way, the Duke never wants her to pass as a boy, but quite openly tells people that she is his niece. (Although, exactly why he does this is never explained. By the end of the novel, one can put together some solid theories, but nothing is stated explicitly.) Early on in the story Katherine passes as a boy merely because she is wearing boy’s clothes and the person who mistakes her simply assumes that only a boy would wear those clothes. When the novel concludes, Katherine is apparently comfortable in both worlds, that of men and women, creating a nice balance between gender, sexuality and circumstance. I wouldn’t call this novel a “transgender” novel, but it absolutely does play with gender role and gender identity.

Privilege is part of a series, the whole of which I have not read. But one definitely does not need to have read the earlier novels to understand or enjoy this one. The time and place is a bit random – the clothes appear to be a mixture of French cavalier for the men and Regency for the women. The language too, has a tendency to wander between Regency novel and casual modern speech, with random visits to courtly, musketeer and pompous. But do NOT let this be seen as a detriment to the reader’s enjoyment. Since time and place are the author’s own creation, which shouldn’t the speech patterns be, as well? ^_^ (Towards the beginning, I found one particular exchange a little irritating and then had to laugh, because I remembered that I had done something almost identical in one of my own stories. So I shut up and kept reading. And let me clarify that I strongly dislike Regency novels, so the repartee – which is certainly witty – may appeal to others where it doesn’t to me.)

In her dedications at the end, Ellen says that this novel was written in pieces and, to a certain extent, it feels like it. The beginning is a little scattered, as if the direction of the story was still unclear. By halfway through the book, the characters have significantly solidified and by two thirds through, I found that I was reading much more quickly because I wanted to know what was going to happen!

I almost forgot – here’s today’s question for you. How many of my dear readers wear clothes more commonly associated with the opposite gender? I wear a suit and tie from time to time. ^_^


Story – 6
Characters – 7

Overall – 7

After it was pointed out by Donna, we all agreed that the woman on the cover looks remarkably like Callista Flockhart. ^_^

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4 Responses

  1. Lee Kottner says:

    Yay! This was a way fun book, I thought, and I liked the way the “cross dressing” was handled, i.e., how hard it was for Katherine to go back to dresses once she realized how much freedom men’s clothing afforded her, a la George Sand. I don’t remember thinking Katherine was bisexual though. Maybe we’re bringing two different viewpoints to the book.

    It also made me think of Melissa Scott’s Point of Hopes & Point of Dreams, atmospherically: two other books where homosexuality is very casually dealt with.

  2. neo_hrtgdv says:

    I don’t like using any clothes of the opposite gender, I only wore women’s poncho once in school because a friend put it on me after I said I was freezing (I really was) and I quickly returned it because she told me I looked girly :P

    But on another similar subject: I know of girls that wear men’s cologne or similar stuff, some say its because it lasts longer on them than women’s perfume, others just like how it smells and use it, and the woman at the perfume store told me and my sis some men like wearing women’s perfume too ^-^

    I don’t, I use “Azzaro” which some people claims it smells too sweet for cologne.

  3. She lives in a house where orgies are going on, and she is present when two men kiss or men and women kiss, yet the first time she feels any sort of sexual excitement is upon seeing two women kiss. And she absolutely desires to kiss Rose and gets all turned on when she is. She feels much the same about Marcus. I don’t see any ambiguity.

  4. Howlsthunder says:

    I am female and prefer masculine clothes and generally appear rather androgynous, though I sometimes get mistaken for a guy. I find that I’m often taken more seriously and given more respect if I wear more masculine clothes – particularly if I am mistaken for male, much to my amusement. ;)

    I’ve discussed this topic on many occasions with friends and find that people have a lot of unique takes on the subject. For my part, I am not and do not wish to appear overly ‘butch’ and I appreciate that more form-fitting clothes simply look better on my female-shaped body. Finding clothes that do this while remaining masculine (be it in colors, fabrics, detailing) can sure be a challenge sometimes.

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