A Book to Keep You Up Late
These days it is a rare book that can keep me up at night. Unless it comes with a little elf who will stick a pin in my neck when I start to drift off, it can’t possibly compete with my two-kids-and-too-much-crap-to-do-induced sleep deprivation. I’m so worn out by the end of the day I’ve been known to fall asleep while brushing my teeth.
Ellen Kushner’s The Privilege of the Sword kept me up at night. It sounds like total hyperbole, like something an ad executive would whip out if a client were balking. I hesitated to use the sleep example but succumbed because it is the best way to describe my love of Sword.
I didn’t expect to like it, frankly, given that its subject matter smacks of some of my least favorite genre clichés. While there are no talking cats, which would have been its death knell, Sword is about a female swordsperson in some hazily defined romantic past that reeks of social hierarchy and buckled swashes. The Bantam trade paperback edition -- the title is simultaneously being released in a much classier looking hardback by my beloved Small Beer Press -- has cover art that confirms my knee-jerk response to what the book should contain. But don’t judge Sword by its art, no matter how tempting it may be to disregard your mama’s advice vis-a-vis book covers. Sword is a ripping good yarn that is chock full of engrossing and subversive undercurrents.
It’s hard to pin how Sword connects to speculative fiction but it subtly does. It may be the best illustration of an interstitial work, one that toys with the conventions of many genres (mostly fantasy and romance) while firmly committing to none. Given Kushner’s heavy involvement with the Interstitial Arts Foundation, which seeks to bring more awareness to such works, Sword’s ineffableness should come as little surprise.
What Sword truly succeeds at is subverting our expectations of character as well as genre. Rather than chunks of cardboard who are merely jerked around by the author in order to make sure that everyone meets cute, Kushner’s creations seem to have free will. As a reader, you continually have the sense that Kushner, who is also the driving force and voice behind NPR’s Sound and Spirit, wants good to be rewarded and bad to be punished, but nonetheless finds that her characters insist on having their own ideas which never fail to botch up the author’s intentions. It’s a delicate balancing act that Kushner expertly performs in order to make sure that her own desires as well as those of her readers and characters are all fulfilled by the novel’s end. It’s a thrill to watch and mostly successful.
The plot -- a young girl is sold to her crazy, jet-black sheep of an uncle in order to be trained as a swordsperson, which is something that is just not done in this nebulous place and time -- has a well-stoked engine that keeps it humming along, which is weird given that Kushner’s prose is rich with embroidered details that should slow the pace down. It’s only later, though, that you realize how much is coded into this text because the read itself is brisk.
Kushner also toys with conventional assumptions about the sexual orientations of the average genre characters. She makes it impossible to simply call, for example, the aforementioned mad duke the gay mad duke because such a description would be too limiting, making it seem as if his gayness were the sum total of his character. In the hands of a lesser writer, the duke would be limned by his sexual preferences. Instead, they are but one more facet of his persona -- just like they are in our nonfictional world. In short, Kushner doesn’t use “gay” as a shortcut.
The only failure of Sword is both a curse and a blessing. The story doesn’t feel 100 percent complete when read in isolation. There are too many loose ends and assumptions about what the reader already knows about Kushner’s world to make the book satisfying. Sword isn’t a book in a series or any equivalent nonsense but there are at least two other novel-length books -- Swordspoint and The Fall of the Kings (written with Delia Sherman) -- and a couple of short stories that are set in the same world and with the same characters. What’s missing from Sword can probably be found in these tales, which is the blessing and curse bit. While I don’t need to miss out on any more sleep, I can’t shake my need to know what has happened and what is to come in Kushner’s world.
The Privilege of the Sword by Ellen Kushner
Bantam/Small Beer Press