Note: This is the first of the five finalists for the 2007 World Fantasy Award finalists for Best Novel that I shall review in the next couple of weeks. The format for this shall differ somewhat from recent reviews in order to focus on the award-worthiness of each of these books.
The Privilege of the Sword, like all but one of the other finalists, is part of a larger series. In this particular case, it shares characters and setting with two earlier novels, Swordspoint (1987) and The Fall of the Kings (2002; co-authored with Delia Sherman). Unlike the other finalists, whose earlier books in their series I have read, this is my first exposure to Kushner's Riverside series. From what I have learned from reading about those works, this entry is some years after the end of Swordspoint and that one of that earlier novel's main characters, Alec Campion (the Mad Duke), has a rather rich and interesting backstory that would have enriched my understanding of his role in The Privilege of the Sword if I had read it. However, I found that I did not need to have read the earlier novels in order to follow the main themes and storylines in The Privilege of the Sword.
The main character here is Katherine, the young niece of the Mad Duke. She is sent for by him on a caprice to be trained in swordplay, in part to see what social conventions of Riverside society he can flout and also to see if Katherine indeed would be capable of mastering the sword. The story revolves around Katherine's training, her struggles to adapt to the often "scandalous" (when viewed from the conservative, country point of view in which Katherine was acculturated) habits and lifestyle of her uncle, and her developing relationships with the people in her uncle's social circle with whom she interacts and starts to "come of age" as a result. Since Riverside society revolves around a dueling culture, much of the conflicts in The Privilege of the Sword deal with matters of social etiquette and how to handle one's self just as adroitly as a trained swordsman is to handle his or her sword. This novel is more of a bildungsroman than an action novel and character interactions and development are key to driving the plot here.
Kushner has a very "human" world in this story. Riverside, although technically a "fantasy" setting, feels very "real" due to the very human foibles committed and the various ways in which the characters interact, sometimes misunderstand, and eventually relate with one another. Her writing is very fluid, with not much wasted on extraneous description. The events flow into one another very well, and Katherine's conflicts and interactions with others develop at a pace which does not slow down the plot. It is a well-told tale, with quite a few pointed comments about modern societal attitudes regarding gender roles, sexuality, and adolescent development that manages to be strong without becoming preachy or distracting from the story experience.
Although The Privilege of the Sword is very well-written and the plot unfolds at a satisfactory pace, it rarely fails to rise above the merely good or competent level for me. Although I did find Katherine and the other characters around her to be well-drawn, there just was no real sense of them being "special" characters for me. It was hard at times to relate to some of the situations presented, not because of a difference in gender, but more because despite the first-person PoV used to tell Katherine's tale, I just felt a sense of distance, as if I were reading the memoirs of someone trying to remember (and sometimes purposely forget) his or her past, instead of that PoV character capturing that sense of immediacy that often makes first-person PoVs so effective to read. This was a fairly major weakness for me, as it really lessened the reading experience. I just did not have as much emotional involvement in this story as I would have liked to have had, although for the most part, the writing and the plot developments, strengthened by the well-drawn characters, did make the story enjoyable in the end.
I certainly do believe that The Privilege of the Sword is one of the better-written books of 2006 among those that I have read. However, I just did not find it to stand out in such a way as to lead me to believe that I would be able to recall the characters and main plot developments years or even months from now. As I said above, it is a very competent novel. It appears to achieve most, if not all, of Kushner's probable aims when she was writing it. However, it just is not a very memorable story for me, as it felt like many other "coming of age" stories that I've read over the years. So while I certainly could see this being in the running for the award, I personally would not choose this as the #1 book among the five finalists.