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August 24, 2006

Privilege of the Sword

Okay, so I've finished The Privilege of the Sword, and I couldn't put it down.

That phrase "couldn't put it down" usually just stands for "this was really good!", but in this case, it was literal. I had to carry it around with me in my purse, and yanked it out for a read every chance I got. That's how much I didn't know what was going to happen next.

Inevitably, the ending disappointed a little. Kushner resolved one major tension about fifty pages from the end---a terrible mistake, because the other tensions' resolution were sapped of much of the energy they would otherwise have had, had they all been resolved at once. The "everything's good now!" scene at the end was far, far too happy and uncomplicated for such a complex world, and didn't come across as quite real, thereby ruining the happy ending Kushner had very ably earned. (and I'm not spoiling anything by saying there's a happy ending. Although the narrative is unfamiliar, she does, as such narratives must, telegraph the inevitability of a (sort of) happy ending by the middle of the book. Otherwise that much uncertainty would be bad for fiction.)

And the pov and person shifts are undergraduate---high school even. I have no idea how a writer of Kushner's quality let herself get away with such a basic and distracting mistake, much less how her editor let her get away with it. There were times when I wanted to throw the book across the room ... but then that would have been putting it down. Which we've already established I could not do.

Apart from this (essential yet not soul-destroying) problem, and occasional thudding prose moments, and more frequent mundane prose moments, Kushner does show her chops in the overall effect of the book. Essentially a bildungsroman about the upbringing of a teenage girl in a male tradition of swordsmanship, the book contains a long interlude in which our heroine is trained by the leading swordsman of the day. This interlude tells us clearly and poignantly how happy she is in that situation, how the training brings her a satisfaction she has never before felt in her life. Throughout, Kushner does not once use value words, or the word "happy". She never once tells us how the protag feels. It is from the simplicity of the language, the way the landscape and actions are described, that this section of the book derives its luminance. And this undefined, untranscribed luminance then infuses the heroine's character thereafter, giving her character stature in our eyes, and her actions and decisions consequence.

And this is an essential, if perhaps unconscious, theme of the novel: that past happiness is what gives strength and consequence and virtue to character. That the interlude of past happiness must be honored and protected for a character to maintain her strength, consequence, and virtue. I love that this is never spoken in the novel, never hinted at by the narrator, or discussed among the characters. Perhaps this theme is so well protected, so subtly and satisfyingly revealed, because the author herself wasn't entirely aware of it. Whatever. Doesn't matter. It's a writing lesson for me.

Ultimately, I was slightly disappointed by the book. It chose a TKO, rather than leaving a bloody corpse on the canvas. There was no real catharsis, and the characters' passage was frittered away at the end over the course of fifty unnecessary pages. I also didn't feel that six months was enough time, even in the life of a fifteen-year-old girl, to effect the kind of character change that happened to our heroine.

Again, whatever. This is a good book, much better than most contemporary genre or lit fic you'll read. Why? Because, as I wrote in my last post, it defies narrative expectations, without once leaving the confines of its narrative tradition. It is not metafiction, not "experimentation". It works at following its characters' actual psychological logic, rather than the logic of a prefabricated plot. So much of genre and lit fic make hay out of permutations of these pre-set plots. And by the plots I don't just mean the broad beams of structure (boy meets girl, boy loses girl, etc.) but also the details of how one gets from A to B to C. (Boy meets girl at a dinner party or spaceport. Boy asks girl out to dinner. They have a witty conversation. They have sex. Their internal psychology reveals their baggage throughout. We know thereafter to expect him to freak out about his deadbeat dad---or about being raised by an AI---and her to react strongly to the death of her grandmother---or the impounding of her father's space shuttle, which she's inherited. etc.)

But in this novel, Beauty enters the hall of the Beast. So far so expected. Here we expect him to be portrayed either as evil, or as good masked by a rough exterior. He is neither. Nor is he comically faulty. He is a serious, dangerous, and attractive figure, whose intentions toward Beauty are both selfish and well-intentioned, both genuinely dangerous to her, and an opportunity for her to grow. And it takes the whole novel to establish that.

In this novel, clearly a bildungsroman, our young protagonist is surrounded by sex and love affairs, and is offered not the traditional two, but rather five (or more) potential lovers, some violently inappropriate to her, and it takes most of the book to discover which one she'll even feel most drawn to, much less which one we want her to take. It's a masterful piece of characterization (and observation of teenaged girls), that the most likely potential lover, according to tradition, is the one she seems to forget most when the chips are down.

In this novel, there is no magic, although the alternate secondary world of lords and ladies and swordsmen, and (barely hinted at) multiple gods seems to cry out for a ragged sorcerer or two. Even the chess sets have wizards instead of bishops, but no wizards appear. This is a minor, and very subtle, tension in the book, that so much of what we expect never materializes, and what does materialize isn't exactly what we expected, although it does fit quite well. The world-building is exquisite. I can't remember a single instance of the first or third person narrators recording an infodump, or explaining a situation at all. At most, the first person protag will explain her relationship to a character. Everything is revealed through description, action, detail, gesture, dialogue.

All of which makes the unfinished, early-draft feel of this novel so frustrating. Already it's better than most of what I'll be reading this year. But, with another draft, with the help of a competent editor, it could have been a great novel. This, after all, is what I think sf/f genre has so much potential for: to kill off the structural mundanity of literary fiction without killing off the novel form.

I think what we need is to allow second and third editions of novels: to allow authors to revise really good novels that could have been really great and make them great even after they've already been published.


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Grrr! I wish we were both at Worldcon so we could have a good, long, conversation about this!! I'm torn between "what she said!!!", wanting to go "and what did you think about...", and envying you for your ability to analyse and articulate what I experienced as a vague sense of dissatisfaction.

well, since i'm worldconless this year, maybe we can do it virtually. email me about an ichat or skype? we can have a book discussion date!

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