Book #90: The Privilege of the Sword (2006)

privilege-of-the-sword-fantasy-audiobookAuthor: Ellen Kushner
Language: English
Length: 940 minutes (15 hours 40 minutes)
Finished listening on: 24 Sep 2015

This book is the second in the series by Ellen Kushner that started with Swordspoint – which I listened to on an audiobook last year – set in her fictional city of Riverside. I’d enjoyed listening to that book because of its LGBT themes and the unique way in which it was made, with sound effects and background chatter added in later, and I thought it’d be a good idea to catch up with the series.

This audiobook presentation was again introduced by Neil Gaiman, who took more of a part in the production itself too this time. This time they used Kushner to narrate the subjective sections told from the main character’s perspective, and another performer, with one of the most amazingly androgynous voices I’ve heard, for the third-person omnipresent sections. Then they had a full cast, like in the previous book, for the more important setpieces.

I found this whole setup a lot more distracting than it had been in Swordspoint, and I found myself paying more attention to the sound effects and music at some points than at the performers. This was a shame, because the book was reasonably compelling, but I suspect that if it’d been more interesting, it wouldn’t have mattered so much.

I guess the reason I thought it could have been more interesting was that it has quite a slow pace, and the plot isn’t its strongest point. It is much more focused on the characters and the situations they find themselves in. I think this stands it apart from the previous book – I noticed an immediate difference when I listened to the sample chapter at the end of this one that came from Swordspoint.

Like its predecessor, it has a lot of LGBT-related content, including the “Mad Duke” Alec, a character from the previous book who likes orgies, and its main plot is that he hires his niece Katherine to be a swordsman – traditionally a male occupation. She has to wear men’s clothes for her uncle – and I guess it’s probably a spoiler, but develops feelings for women later in the novel, causing her to worry that she’s going to end up like her depraved uncle. (She is a good example of a non-straight female character who doesn’t die at the end, and I wish that was not such a radical statement – and after all, Kushner herself is lesbian, so there’s an obvious element of the author inserting her own experiences.)

The book and author are expert at creating the atmosphere of the time period and fantasy setting, and this aspect is certainly supplemented by the sound effects and music. Her characters are also interesting, and Katherine in particular has a well-defined arc over the course of the plot. For me, though, it started to drag a bit, and I wished that the sound effects weren’t distracting me so much. I’d say I liked it overall – but I’d recommend not this book but the previous one, just in terms of pacing and world-building.

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