Be honest: have you ever fantasized about your previously unknown, aristocratic, super-duper-wacky-cool uncle taking you, his niece, under his wing and teaching you swordplay? And using the subsequent skills to defend yourself and your friends from the villainous creeps of the world?
Your secret dream will come true for the four precious hours your face is stuck to the pages of this book.
Initially, I was enticed by the thrilling synopsis and the promise of a teenage girl's sword-slashing freedom (more like sword-thrusting). For me that was most of the suspense. Katherine's uncle makes a deal with her family: he will pay off all their debts if they send their youngest daughter to learn swordplay. We follow Katherine's journey, which culminates into only two major duels--but those are the payoffs, not the buildup. Those were the moments I held my breath for. And Kushner, contrary to my expectations of melodramatic Hollywood antics, maintains a tense--dare I say gentlemanly?--equilibrium that ended up being way more exciting.
With the privilege of the sword comes the power to challenge, to be challenged. To meet another on your own terms, whether they, or society, likes it or not.
I watched, and I responded. The crowd was quieter now. This was the way it was supposed to be, a conversation between equals, an argument of steel. I wasn't going to die. The worse that I could do was lose the bout, but I wasn't going to lose if I could help it.
This also resembles a novel of manners. There are codes of social mores, concerns about marriage, and money. In fact, the book opens with Katherine's going to her uncle's in order to save her family financially. One author on the back cover calls it a mixture of Georgette Heyer and Dumas, which though I've read neither, sounds fairly accurate. Kushner blends the two flavors so thoroughly that they feel part and parcel of the same world, even when not directly intersecting. Katherine's learning of swordplay, combined with Artemisia's husband-hunting, along a few others.
One of the things that surprised me was the Katherine's uncle, the Mad Duke. He takes something of a back seat and the role of teacher is relegated to three secondary characters. My question was, what kind of awesome weirdo sees his virtually-a-stranger niece's badass potential so unhesitatingly? In Calpurnia Tate, it's Calpurnia who seeks out her oddball grandfather of her own accord and earns his respect. At first, Kushner's explanation was that the Mad Duke was just a tad cracked in the head, but I wasn't going to accept that. As it turns out, this part is probably the most priceless piece of characterization in the whole book, and very subtly pulled off. Subtle enough that the pathos might even have been slightly dulled. But this is a rollicking adventure, not a deep emotional arc.
Ultimately, my favorite thing about The Privilege of the Sword is its concept. I love the combination of the traditional and the unorthodox, the way the story is structured to allow a girl to perform the heroics with all the right undertones of excitement, friendship, and accidental self-discovery. I hope Kushner's other books measure up, because I'm not sure just how much the plot concept played a role in my enjoyment, compared to all the disparate details added together. (There is some sex, which was interesting for historical-feeling context of prostitution and extramarital/bisexuality, but is written rather tonelessly.)