Book Review: The Privilege of the Sword


Author: Ellen Kushner
Publisher: Bantam Spectra
ISBN: 9780553382683
Genre: Fantasy


Welcome to Riverside, where the aristocratic and the ambitious battle for power in the city’s ballroom, brothels and boudoirs. Into this alluring world walks Katherine, a well-bred country girl versed in the rules of conventional society. Her mistake is thinking that they apply. For Katherine’s host and uncle, Alec Campion, aka the Mad Duke Tremontaine, is in charge here—and to him, rules are made to be broken. When Alec decides it would be more amusing for his niece to learn swordplay than to follow the usual path to marriage, her world changes forever. Blade in hand, it’s up to Katherine to navigate a maze of secrets and scoundrels and to gain the self-discovery that comes to those who master: the privilege of the sword.


The Privilege of the Sword has earned high praise from the likes of Joan D. Vinge (whose early work I really enjoyed), Suzy McKee Charnas, Patricia McKillip and a couple of other of my favourite fantasy and SF authors, all of which makes me wonder if any of these luminaries actually read the book. Or, if in fact, read the same book as I did? Because we seem to have a huge difference of opinion about this one. While their opinion is gushing mine is wtf?

Maybe it was expectation for my part. I was given this book as a birthday present, as it was on my wish list based on all the glowing quotes heaped upon it. It was given me by a friend who really knows what I like, strong female protagonists, interesting story-lines, characters and situations that pop, and more…knows that I really love swordplay, around which this story is centred. That said, it failed to deliver on any number of levels, at least, for me.

Privilege has a fairly interesting if somewhat muddled story-line, which weaves Katherine’s story (as seen through her eyes, told in the first-person) with that of the petulant and somewhat spoilt Artemisia (written strangely enough in the third-person) taking up the rest of the plot.

The story itself also relies heavily on references to its predecessor, Swordspoint (which I haven’t read) with regard to a number of characters, including setting. Although in truth there’s not much to the setting to begin with.

This could be any sword and sorcery kingdom without the sorcery part, which is a shame in itself, as it might have added something which was sadly lacking. And while Privilege is billed as a fantasy, again, for me, it reads more like an averagely written period-piece. I would even go as far as to say Georgette Heyer does, or I should say, did do a better job with her versions of a good old-fashioned Regency romance!

The characters are, for the most part, unsympathetic and the storyline didn’t endear them to me either. The central character of Katherine came across as a bit of the naive cliché. While Alec Campion—the Mad Duke Tremontaine from the original book—is one of the least likeable narcissistic fops of a character, that I’ve ever read.

The more interesting moments of the story, which are few and far between, are when Katherine is learning the sword. Though I’m never quite sure why she is set on avenging the rape of Artemisia given theirs is an unlikely friendship to begin with. The sword-fight scenes are the only highlight in this glimpse into a society and its manners, where the fantasy setting should have allowed the author to do so much more. The only thing holding the whole book together was Kushner’s prose and that in itself wasn’t enough for me.

Unfortunately, this simply wasn’t the book I’d hoped it would be.

Rating : 4 / 10

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  1. November 5, 2018

    I actually loved these books so much more after reading them twice. The first time I didn’t really get it, but somehow they did grow on me. (Which is not to say you should try again! Just an odd thing that hapepned for me.)

    • November 5, 2018

      It’s true I’ve had that happen to me too, with a book I’ve given a second go because I might have given up half way through. But not sure I’ll bother with this one. Thanks, Nikki.

  2. November 4, 2018

    Oh dear, I’m sorry to hear this was such a disappointment to you. I read the Riverside books last year and fall into the camp of gushing praise (hence my fannish allegiance to Tremontaine).

    It’s more an alternate world rather than a fantasy world – I suppose the fantasy is in its sexual attitudes rather than its magic (although the third book hints that there’s more to it than meets the eye, neither the books nor Tremontaine really do more than hint that the Land has forgotten – not lost – its magical heritage, but the myths haven’t quite abandoned it).

    I’m not entirely surprised Privilege doesn’t stand on its own two feet – having context on Alec (a principal in Swordspoint, and every bit as unlikeable) and on Ferris was everything for me; just as you need context on Katherine for the third book (where she’s a supporting character, as Alec is here). Anyway, I’m wittering, so I’ll stop! We don’t all love the same books, and that’s part of the joy of reading other people’s blogs for me 🙂

    • Alexandra
      November 4, 2018

      Indeed, no, I’m only too happy you withered on, with how you feel for the books and series. I understand we all have books and characters we fall in love with, for one reason or another and it’s good that we all like something different. But this novel really was just a muddled mess, with unsympathetic characters, which made for a tedious read.

  3. November 4, 2018

    Sometimes I wonder about those blurbs in praise of a book… It’s not like they’re going to print the negative ones!

    • Alexandra
      November 4, 2018

      Exactly, Naomi. But did these authors read the book, because sometimes, I wonder.

  4. November 2, 2018

    Damn Alexandra! This is so sad as you wished for it. But unsympathetic characters …that would indeed make it difficult to enjoy your read!

    • November 2, 2018

      Damn, is right, Sophie. The characters were just so … annoying! So yes, it was a dull read in the end.

  5. November 2, 2018

    Oh, I hate it when an anticipated book doesn’t deliver. It has happened to me quite a few times recently and it makes me so grumpy! 🙂

    Thanks for an honest review!

    • November 2, 2018

      This is billed as a sequel, of sorts, Vera. And the blurb made it intriguing, certainly, it had all the right ingredients. But then, kind of fell flat in the delivery. I felt like the author couldn’t decide on what kind of story she was writing, and if she doesn’t know, then how the hell are we to follow along?

      But this is just my opinion. Others might love it.

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