The Privilege of the Sword (Riverside, Book 2)
By Ellen Kushner, Narrated by Ellen Kushner, Barbara Rosenblat, Felicia Day, Nick Sullivan, Katherine Kellgren, Joe Hurley and Neil Gaiman
Length: 15 hours, 40 minutes
I have a serious complaint about Ellen Kushner’s The Privilege of the Sword: it ended. I could’ve happily listened to 100 more hours of Katherine’s Tom Joad-esque mythology as a swordswoman for the disenfranchised and disempowered. But look, I’m getting ahead of myself. But look again, this book is such a delight!
The Privilege of the Sword is a sequel of sorts to Swordspoint, but you need not listen to Swordspoint to enjoy this book. The story is this: Alec Campion, the Mad Duke of Tremontaine, invites his niece to come live with him in the city for six months and take up sword lessons. Katherine, his niece, thinks it’s just an eccentricity of the Mad Duke’s, and expects she’ll spend much of her time dressing up for balls and falling in love.
Kushner creates an incredible supporting cast – including the standout Artemisia, another young woman Katherine’s age – who initially seems like she might become Katherine’s bosom friend, but instead becomes her foil. Artemisia gets the life Katherine thought she wanted – the dresses, the balls, and the suitors, but as she plays out her role in society, she soon finds herself trapped by everyone she thought she loved. Meanwhile, Katherine is trapped training as swordsman and bodyguard, a job only men are generally allowed to perform. But with this more masculine job, she’s given more opportunity to make her own choices. Chief among these is saving Artemisia’s honor, and then defending it. The rest of the supporting characters are great too – from Lucius Perry’s relationship with his mysterious mistress to Marcus – Alec’s servant. They all feel like real characters, with real depths and desires, and I didn’t want to stop spending time with them.
Kushner also weaves in “The Swordsman Whose Name Was Not Death,” a story within the story (as well as a play). Katherine and Artemisia write letters to each other, signing their names as characters to the play – Katherine as the swordsman, Artemisia as the damsel, adding a delicious extra layer of subtext. This story is as much Katherine’s coming of age and beginning to understand her desires, as it is a swashbuckling romance.
Both Kushner and Barbara Rosenblat narrate the novel to perfection – Kushner reads the passages that are told from Katherine’s perspective, and Rosenblat reads those from the other characters. They are supported by an illuminated cast, and I think this is the best cast of the Riverside stories. Felicia Day (who unfortunately doesn’t get quite as much time as one would hope) voices Katherine, and shines whenever she’s reading. But the absolute stunner is Joe Hurley, who completely captures the Mad Duke of Tremontaine’s drunken, hedonistic, washed-out rock star voice, a wild voice that’s hiding a beautiful soul beneath. Kushner really rounded out Alec’s character in this book, and Hurley is impossible not to love in the role. When he’s verbally sparring with Nick Sullivan’s villainous Lord Ferris, sparks fly. I could listen to them arguing with each other for hours with Kushner’s barbed dialogue. Neil Gaiman’s cameo as a wild artist is an additional delight.
The Privilege of the Sword is just about everything you could ask for in a novel – it’s exciting, funny, sexy, and one of the most fun audiobooks I’ve listened to all year. It’s an empowering story that subverts a lot of society’s gender roles, and it’s also incredibly fun. If this is being preached at, I want to go to church every Sunday, and then every other day of the week too.