Book Review: The Privilege of the Sword by Ellen Kushner

One of the books recommended at the Return of the Rape Panel was Ellen Kushner’s The Privilege of the Sword. Since I’d also been to the Living the Long Tail panel, it became the first book I’ve read using a Kindle app on my Android phone. The following  is both a review of reading on a phone and a review of the novel.
One of the things I mentioned as a benefit of using Kindle was that, pretty much as soon as someone mentioned a book at one of the panels, I could access Amazon and get a sample of that book sent to my Kindle app. That makes it really easy to keep track of recommendations and then to read enough of those books to see if there’s more I’d like. Buying the book is very simple from the app as well.
Another benefit that I hadn’t realized at first was that all instances of Kindle used by me are linked. I have a Kindle app on my home PC, my work PC, and my phone (no Kindle device yet, but I’ve been strongly leaning in that direction. At least until my home PC became a boat anchor and there may be a new computer purchase in my future). I usually have my phone with me throughout the day and more than once I found I wasn’t able to make it home for lunch. That meant eating out and I had reading material with me. A really nice feature was that Kindle kept track of where I’d been reading across all of the devices. If I read for a bit on my home PC and then went out to lunch, the phone app would ask if I wanted to go to the furthest point read. It remembered where I was on that device and where I was over all. Nice feature.
For the most part, I enjoyed reading on the Kindle app. One of the things that has me more interested in Kindle than the other book readers is that Kindle allows me to make annotations, bookmarks, and highlights. Except you can only create bookmarks with the phone app and that’s not as nice. It makes the app good for novel reading, but not great for research. Good limitation to know.
I’ve read the two other books that Ellen Kushner has set in this universe (Swordspoint and The Fall of the Kings) and enjoyed them both, but it had been several years since I’d read the last one. That meant I felt a bit lost trying to remember if I’d met certain characters before and what they’d been doing when last we spent time together. That was probably a mistake on my part. Ellen (I can use her first name that because I’ve met her a couple of times at WisCon. Spent time in her “living room” at the ‘con several years ago. She wouldn’t remember me at all, but I’d like to pretend we’d be on a first name basis) set this story several years forward from the last one in the series and so the main characters in those tales were secondary to this one.
The story is really good. Let’s get that out of the way up front. I think it may be my favorite of the series but I should re-read the first two before I make that definitive. This review is going to focus on two elements of the story that are either intriguing or challenging. The first is the reason the book had been recommended to me originally. A major element of the plot is the rape of one of the secondary characters. Unlike rape as it’s depicted in shows like Law and Order SVU or the majority of novels, this rape was typical. What’s that? You don’t know what I mean? Rape as it’s often depicted in TV shows and books is most often perpetrated by strangers with violence. Afterward, the person raped is usually totally destroyed by the experience or has put it all behind hir by the fourth act or a dozen chapters later. More to the point, rape is something that happens to move a plot forward and then ignored when the plot no longer requires hir suffering.
The rape in this story is actually typical: the person was someone she knew, it happened more by the way of coercion (social more than physical) than knife point. She then told her family about the rape, but they were more interested in preserving the family name and status than in helping out their daughter. I admit: at first I was put off by the fact that the last half of the novel became about the rape. Despite picking up the book because of how it handled rape, I found the story to be distressing to me because of how much time was spent on the aftermath. Of course, before long I realized that was the point. The violence perpetrated against the character, particularly in the society as Ellen set it up, needed to reverberate across all the other characters and plot points in the novel. Just as promised at the WisCon panel, the issue of rape became central to the character and the story and it has handled appropriately.
The other element of this story that I wanted to touch on is an issue of craft. Ellen used a first person point of view for the main character and third person for multiple other characters. I’ve tried to use that approach in a short story because of the potential for storytelling. The short story didn’t work that well, but that was more because of me than the technique. I liked how the approach helps center the story in the first person character. All the benefits of first person POV can then be used to get us really close to the main character. We’re in her head and experience the world as she does. But the limitation of first person POV – that we will only know what the main character knows – can be sidestepped by having the third person used for the rest of the storytelling. Ellen uses a close third person: each scene is told pretty tightly from one POV during the scene/chapter. But she uses a range of those additional voices, whatever is needed to tell the story. Instead of being a “lazy” way of using the first person POV, Ellen uses those additional voices to add tension to the story of the main character. It brings us closer to her even as it expands the canvas of the story. Not every novelist could carry that off, but Ellen does it very well.
To sum up, the novel is very well told with a wide range of enjoyable characters. The situations presented take this novel off the “casual, summer fluff” list, but that’s ok. I’m guessing that reading it on a Kindle app didn’t take from my enjoyment at all. But if I see Ellen at WisCon again, it’s going to make it damned difficult getting her to sign the e-copy during the Sign Out.

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