Swords and Skullduggery
By Cheryl Morgan
Once upon a time there were two lovers. He was a dashing swordsman, never beaten in a duel, a ruthless killer. And he was a dissolute young nobleman, seeking distraction in the less genteel parts of the city as a means of revenging himself upon his awful family. Swordspoint, Ellen Kushner’s tale of intrigue, swordplay and gay love, was one of my favorite books from the 1980’s. It has been a long time coming, but finally we can find out what happened to Alec and Richard.
I’m going to have to apologize to Kushner at this point because my copy of the Swordspoint Second Edition is back home in California. There too is my copy of The Fall of the Kings. I can’t remember all of the salient details of the books, in particular the short stories added to Swordspoint which intersect with the new book, The Privilege of the Sword. As a result I’m not going to review the new book as well as I ought to. Sorry. One of the many problems of my itinerant lifestyle.
If you took from that that you really need to have read Swordspoint in order to fully appreciate The Privilege of the Sword then you read my meaning correctly. You probably can enjoy the new book if you are entirely ignorant of Alec Campion, Richard St. Vier, the Duchess Tremontaine, Michael Godwin, Anthony Deverin and the rest of the crowd, but you certainly won’t care as much about what happens to them. You will also have very little background about their world. But I have no problem with this. If you like the one book then you will certainly like the other, so why not buy both?
OK, time for a little plot. The years have moved on. Alec has been Duke Tremontaine for some time. Everyone thinks he is mad, which suits him just fine. It enables him to annoy anyone he likes more or less with impunity, and it allows him to indulge in every sort of debauchery under the sun. How better to drive away the knowledge that Richard is no longer with him?
Quite what possessed Alec to send for his young niece and have her trained as a swordsman is never explained. Perhaps it was a whim. Perhaps, in his eccentric way, Alec was trying to do her a favor. And perhaps he just assumed that she’d need rescuing from her mother the same way that he had at her age. Fortunately Katherine Talbert proves to have something of an aptitude for the sword, and is not too upset at being forced to dress like a man. Just as well really, although the lifestyle isn’t quite as dangerous as it was in Richard’s day.
"Most challenges are fought as pure entertainment. Your swordsman gets a scratch, or his does, and you’re done for the day. The two nobles who called challenge on each other know what the fight was about, and usually their friends do as well, and everyone respects the outcome. Nobody asks swordsmen to die anymore just to prove a point of honor."
At this point the reader is tempted to play guessing games. Will Kate discover that she enjoys masquerading as a boy, fall madly in love with the beautiful if tantrum-prone Artemesia Fitz-Levi? Will she discover instead that her first love is the sword, and become a professional duelist? Or will she turn her back on her uncle’s mad schemes and settle down with a handsome young lad she meets half way through the book? To find out the answer you need to read the book. The point here is that you will find yourself asking such questions, and you’ll probably come up with a few wrong answers.
In the meantime you get to read a very jolly comedy that takes the sharpness out of some astute complaints about social issues. You also get a bunch of fun asides about a book.
"Oh dear," sighed her mother, "it’s that awful piece of trash about the swordsman lover, isn’t it. My friends were mad for that book when we were young."
No, she’s not talking about Swordspoint, she’s talking about The Swordsman Whose Name Was Not Death, a much more period novel. It has been about for a while, and has even been turned into a play. And guess how the fans of the book react to that…
"Lavinia says that Henry Sterling as Fabian is a pale and feeble joke, though Jane says she’d marry him in an instant. But Lavinia has hardly a good word to say for the piece; she’s vexed that they’ve left out the entire bit about the hunting cats, though I can hardly see how they’d play that onstage. Jane says it doesn’t matter, because Mangrove’s repentance at the end is even more affecting than it is in the book. But Lavina thinks it is not true to the spirit of the novel."
Ah my, such a familiar story. I wonder what Lavina and Jane would have made of Orlando Bloom and Vigo Mortensen?
Still, what can you expect from a book with two fifteen-year-old girls as central characters? Fluff and giggles, of course. Good job Alec is there to add an air of seriousness to proceedings.
And actually there is a serious point being made. Much of the plot is about people being free to live their own lives. Alec always has, of course. Kate is stuck between her mother, who is desperate for her family to be normal and erase the stain of the Tremontaine connection, and Alec, who despises normal. Artemesia is blessed with parents who regard her as an asset to be married off to best advantage, regardless of how odious the prospective groom. Other characters too are owned in various ways.
Having got to the end, I was rather torn. There’s no doubt that the book is great fun. Kushner’s prose is fabulous and her characters vivid, though the book itself is far more charming than any of them. I hate having to say this about a book, because it sounds like an insult, but it really would make great beach reading. On the other hand, it does have a serious point to make, and that point is, I think, rather more blunt than Kate’s sword because of the fantasy/historical setting. Clearly our world is a lot more relaxed about social issues than Alec Campion’s. But it is still a world in which many parents regard their children as their property. It is still a world in which families can castigate their offspring for the "shame" of being gay, transgendered, a science fiction fan or whatever. It probably takes more than an entertaining and amusing fantasy novel to drive that point home. But then again, we all have to start somewhere, and if the entertainment gets people reading the book then that will be a good thing.
[Note: A limited edition hardcover will be available from Small Beer Press in August.]