When I went to Scotland, I took two books with me. One was The Game of Kings, by Dorothy Dunnett — the tale of a noble rapscallion named Francis Crawford of Lymond who offends and/or fascinates everyone he meets while pursuing a mysterious agenda in 16th century Scotland. It’s a challenging and worthy beginning to a six-book series that in its telling travels far beyond the borders of Scotland and conveys an impressive amount of historical detail while satisfying a thirst for good character drama and fabulous prose. I first read it about 5 years ago; the series was one of the factors that decided me on going to Scotland. An obvious choice for the trip.
The other book was a concession to impatience. The Privilege of the Sword, by Ellen Kushner, had been delivered to me in gorgeous hardcover mere days before; though space was at a premium in my luggage, I couldn’t leave it behind. TPotS (as I pronounce the acronym, “teapots”, it seems very appropriate for a book that has been called a “fantasy of manners“) is the latest installment in a series of loosely connected works that began with the novel Swordspoint in 1987.
An old friend of mine lent Swordspoint to me not long after it was published, saying only that it was “strange.” I’m not sure what he meant by that, but I suspect he was thinking of the upfront element of homosexual love, tinged with self-destructive behavior and sado-masochism. I found that unusual and interesting, though compared to the works of Samuel Delany I was also reading around that time it was fairly tame. What struck me as “strange” and noteworthy was not the subject matter itself but the style of the writing, which seemed to hold up each decadent moment in a pair of icy tongs and pass judgement on it. Not in a moralistic sense — that would be old and familiar — but in an aesthetic one. Time and again, appearances are treated as ends in themselves, and victory is determined by who comes out looking best, or who laughs last. Yet there were occasional glimpes of an ethical center to it all. Most of my literary experiences to that point had been fairly earnest and realistic (even in the genres of science fiction and fantasy), so I didn’t know quite what to make of the tone. Was this how the author really viewed things? Or was this a wicked and peculiarly mannered put-on?
I eventually met Ellen Kushner at Wiscon in 1996. She had a certain style and dramatic flair, but she was obviously not a cynical society maven. She read from a novel in progress (which would eventually become TPotS), and took obvious joy in getting into the spirit of the thing. This gave me some valuable perspective on her work, and I realized, perhaps for the first time since childhood, that literature could be just about having FUN, not necessarily in a Mary Sue wish-fulfillment way, but in a knowingly referential homage to and expansion of beloved works. A sort of, “Let’s get out the toys and play!” approach to books.
In Kushner’s case, those beloved works include the novels of the aforementioned Dorothy Dunnett, as well as those of Alexandre Dumas (père), Georgette Heyer, and Damon Runyon. And let me not forget the Bard, sparkling Shakespeare, whose works I too have come to love in the last ten years. (Someday I should write another blog entry about the series of read-throughs of Shakespeare’s plays that my friend Beverly has been putting on since 2003. In short: great fun.) What Kushner does with these influences and her own imagination is nothing short of intoxicating. Political machinations, social connivance, betrayal, deception, gender ambiguity, true love, and LOTS of swordplay. This is frothy and fiercely intelligent stuff.
And that’s just Swordspoint! Beyond the “Read More” link I will reveal all about The Privilege of the Sword, which I read till the wee hours several nights running on my trip.TPotS begins about twenty years after the end of Swordspoint. Alec, the black sheep of Tremontaine, is now the head of the family. His mischievous and debauched antics have earned him the nickname of the Mad Duke. His lover, the swordsman Richard St. Vier, is nowhere in evidence. In his place we have a new character, and a new narrative device: Katherine Talbert, the Mad Duke’s niece, telling her own story in the first person.
Katherine starts off as a victim of family politics. Her branch of the Tremontaine family tree has been starved of cash by an old dispute with her uncle; she is offered as a sacrifice to the Duke’s whims when he promises to restore funds and land in return for six months of his niece’s time and obedience. All she has to do is come to the City and study the sword. Bizarre, she thinks, but quite acceptable for her family’s sake. Particularly if she gets to expand her wardrobe and acquire an air of sophistication that will help her to land a worthy husband.
Well… it turns out that’s not what her uncle has in mind. As soon as she arrives, her clothes are taken away and she is told she must wear only men’s attire. Also, she is not to see or write to her mother; if she does, the deal is off. In Kushner’s City, women DO NOT dress up as men. Katherine’s appearance brands her as a freak, and she is miserable. At the same time, she finds she is occasionally able to coast on people’s lazy assumptions of her masculinity — to them, she might as well BE a man because she looks like one. Particularly after she acquires some skill with the sword and starts wearing one around town, she begins to see and question the assumed roles of women and men in her society, and to want some of the men’s power for herself and her female friends.
Meanwhile, her uncle has his own power struggles to worry about. These conflicts are similar to some found in Swordspoint. I found them more interesting this time around because they involved characters I have an emotional investment in. Alec, while still self-absorbed, semi-deranged, and often nasty, is more endearing with some extra years on him, and his longing for the missing Richard (who does eventually make an appearance) was truly affecting. Perhaps this is because I wanted Richard back, too. There is a section of the book in which Katherine is sent to the country to study with Richard, whom she knows only as “The Master”. It is an oddly lyrical interlude, full of complex but uncomplicated joy. Katherine is not willing to leave, and when she is taken back the City she weeps. This section is written so well that I completely empathized with her even though I don’t normally respond to episodes like this.
Of course, she gets over it. She’s a teenager! She eventually is drawn into the teeming world of City interpersonal dynamics and shocked, then moved to action, by some of what she sees. She also learns that she likes some of it very much. Having grown up in a small town myself, and moved to Vermont’s own version of the City right after college, I really enjoyed Katherine’s encounters with Crime, Gossip, Sex, and Art, and how these things intertwine and influence each other in a landscape thick with many kinds of people. This is a classic bildungsroman with its own light touch and cock-eyed point of view.
Last night I picked up The Fall of the Kings, a novel written by Kushner and her partner Delia Sherman that is set in the City about forty years after TPotS. I’ve had a copy of this book for years but never could get into it. It seemed plodding and kind of depressing. However, I recently read on Elizabeth Bear’s blog that the future of Katherine and Marcus is revealed in this book, so I had to take a look. Flipping through it, I found myself puzzled and kind of irked that so little is explained. Why doesn’t Katherine have any children? Because she can’t? Or because she doesn’t want to? And does she have any sex life at all any more? And who’s this other woman with Marcus? I want more gossip!
I realized as I closed The Fall of the Kings that that was why I didn’t like it nearly as well. Not enough gossip. Not enough bubbling possibility and joy in the weirdness that people get up to. If you like that as much as I do, I really recommend both Swordspoint and The Privilege of the Sword.