The Privilege of the Sword

Ellen Kushner  - published September 2006

A witty, wicked coming-of-age story of a girl who loses all her privileges except one… The Privilege of the Sword.

  • Locus Award Winner
  • Romantic Times Reviewers Choice Award Winner
  • Greenman Review Best Adult Novel
  • Lambda Literary Awards Nominee
  • Spectrum Award Nominee
  • Cybil Award Nominee
  • Tiptree Honor List
  • Nebula Award finalist

Our limited edition hardcover of Ellen Kushner’s novel complements Bantam’s simultaneous trade paperback edition.The Privilege of the Sword is a novel of love, betrayal, scandal, and secrets. Set between Kushner’s previous novel, Swordspoint, and her collaboration with Delia Sherman, The Fall of the Kings, Privilege is a marvelous tale crackling with energy, wit, and wonders.

In a labyrinthine city full of intrigue, secrets, and scoundrels, in the Riverside district where society’s rules only loosely apply, Katherine, the niece of Alec Campion, Duke Tremontaine, dreams of a life of ladylike privilege. But — Katherine’s uncle is not called the Mad Duke for nothing. Her dreams crash down to earth when she discovers that her uncle wants an entirely different life for her.

The Mad Duke wants to turn her into something unique, something the city has never seen before: a woman who can fight her own battles, a swordswoman.

However, even the Mad Duke doesn’t realize what giving that power to a young girl will mean.


Small pow’r the word has,
And can afford us
Not half so much privilege as
The sword does.
— Anon., “The Dominion of the Sword” (1658)

If the old fantastical Duke of dark corners had been at home, he had lived…. The Duke yet would have dark deeds darkly answered.
— Shakespeare, Measure for Measure, IV.iii; III.ii

All the same, he had no manners then, and he has no manners now, and he never will have any manners.
— Rudyard Kipling, “How the Rhinoceros Got his Skin”

“What a gruesome way to treat one’s niece [!]”
— James Thurber, The Thirteen Clocks


* “This novel introduces a fearless and resourceful heroine with a true heart and a keen-edged blade. Spiced with humor and spot-on period detail, this coming-of-age tale belongs in most fantasy and YA collections.”
Library Journal (Starred Review)

Click cover for larger image.

Advance Readers say:

“Unholy fun, and wholly fun . . . an elegant riposte, dazzlingly executed.”
–Gregory Maguire, Wicked

“Splendid — a swashbuckler for women! Katherine is everything I love in a female hero: Impudent, lively, idealistic, fierce, and in over her head.”
–Tamora Pierce, Trickster’s Choice

“One of the most gorgeous books I’ve ever read: it’s witty and wonderful, with characters that will provoke, charm and delight.”
— Holly Black (Tithe)

“A magical mixture of Dumas and Georgette Heyer. The dialogue dazzles and so does the swordplay.”
— Kelly Link (Magic for Beginners)

The Privilege of the Sword

Chapter One

No one sends for a niece they’ve never seen before just to annoy her family and ruin her life. That, at least, is what I thought. This was before I had ever been to the city. I had never been in a duel, or held a sword myself. I had never kissed anyone, or had anyone try to kill me, or worn a velvet cloak. I had certainly never met my Uncle the Mad Duke. Once I met him, much was explained.

* * *

Chapter Two

“You have no use for girls. You told me so yourself.”

In a fine room in the Mad Duke Tremontaine’s house on the Hill, a fat and messy young woman sprawled on a velvet chaise-longue, one hand buried in a bowl of summer strawberries. Across the room, the Mad Duke examined the back of his chimneypiece for cracks. “Utter incompetents,” he grumbled. “They wouldn’t know wood-bore from a tick on their dog’s ass.”

She stuck to the subject. “Neither would girls.”

“I do have no use for girls. Not that way; not with ones I’m related to, anyway.” He popped out of the fireplace to leer briefly, but getting no response went back and continued, “You should be grateful. Or, as the only respectable female of my acquaintance, you are the one I would have to impose upon to escort my niece to dances and things when she gets here.”

The homely woman, whose name was Flavia, but whom everyone thought of as That Ugly Girl of the Duke’s, put a large berry in her mouth, wiped her fingers on the velvet of the chaise, and talked around it. “What crap. Any titled lady whose husband owes you money would be delighted to take your niece in hand, if only to show you how it’s done properly and try to instill some gratitude in you.” She licked juice off her lips. “You know, I’ve been meaning to ask you: why do you talk so much, when half of what you say is utter crap?”

“To keep you on your toes,” he answered promptly. “How would you like it if everything I said suddenly started making sense? It would only confuse you.”

The Riverside Series:

Although The Privilege of the Sword stands by itself as a self-contained novel, it is also the third book in what has become known as “The Riverside Series.” The titles thus far are:

  • Swordspoint
  • The Privilege of the Sword (set ca. 20 years later)
  • The Fall of the Kings (with Delia Sherman; set ca. 40 years after Privilege, 60 after Swordspoint)

Ellen has a chronology and a little more info the books here.

On the web:


  • Cover images © Corbis: Detail Showing Hand on Ornate Sword Hilt from “Portrait of Charles IX of France” by Francois Clouet.
  • Download cover for print.
  • Download author photo for print.Author photo credit: Michael Benveniste/MCFI

Extraordinary praise for Ellen Kushner’s previous books:

“At once traditional and bold…Richly imagined scenes of Faerie, elegant and incongruous as the films of Cocteau.” — Locus

“Immensely appealing, intelligent, and great fun.” — Kirkus Reviews

“Gives every indication of having been conceived and executed in joy and delight.” — Rachel Manija Brown, Green Man Review

“A tour-de-force.” — Terri Windling

“A virtual treat for all the senses … for those who like their fantasy soaked in intrigue, history and romance … One of the bawdiest and most intellectually stimulating novels of the year!” — Bookpage

“Kushner and Sherman return to the sophisticated urban world of Kushner’s Swordspoint 60 years later, as the city is overset by research into the past that unearths dangerous old magic and political unrest. A powerful fantasy that rises above the crowd with a vivid setting, complex characters, and elegant prose.” — Locus Notable Book

“A high-fantasy novel of rare quality, in which the richly detailed world building leaps out and seizes the reader…Literate, absorbing, and with bite to it, the book shows that Kushner and Sherman together are quite up to the standards of either on her own.” — Booklist

“This dynamic tale of the twin powers of love and scholarship offers a glimpse into the connection between learning and politics while portraying the lives of individuals poised on the border of myth and reality…a sensual and evocative tale that should appeal to fans of Tanith Lee and Storm Constantine. Highly recommended.” — Library Journal

“Layered and complex … mature, adventurous, witty and deep… the book’s biggest strength is in the complex understanding that Kushner and Sherman show for human relations on both a small and large scale. They’re not afraid to let their characters make real, human mistakes, and not afraid to show the results of both good and bad decisions … It’s clear from the tale of wonder, pain and hope between the covers that magic is alive in our world too.” — Lambda Book Report

“By avoiding cliched settings and plot so deftly, the authors tap into fantasy’s genuine source of drama, its ability to haunt, appall, transform.” — Locus

“The complex interplay of the characters is a delight in itself, and the authors have accomplished the most difficult task in fantasy — they have created a world of magic that feels authentic. Here’s a fantasy novel that won’t insult your intelligence, and which almost demands re-reading to catch all the nuances you miss the first time.” — Science Fiction Chronicle

“Embraces the age-old struggle between scholars and mystics … to bridge the gulf that separates history from mystery … The interactions between the characters echo the works of Dorothy Dunnett…St. Cloud, Campion, and the rest of the cast walk through the pages of this novel with style and wit, larger than life — and full of life.” — Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction

“Here’s one for fantasy lovers who are tired of quests and faux medievalism…elegant…Kushner and Sherman create a multi-layered urban fantasy world, full of quirky characters and perceptively drawn settings…the plot is worthy of the characters in its convolution and sophistication. In short, a book for readers who enjoy subtlety and craftsmanship along with a full quota of magic and adventure.” — Asimov’s

“A collaboration evocative of Jane Austen or Georgette Heyer, Kushner and Sherman deliver their “comedy of academic manners” with panache.” — Romantic Times

The Fall of the Kings is a glorious re-envisioning of magic and academia — more precisely, of the magic of academia…a rare treasure, a seamless collaboration. The two authors have created a shared fantasy that is enhanced by the styles and ideas of both, without being overwhlemed by either.” — The New York Review of Science Fiction

“A definite winner…political subterfuge mixed with strong mythic overtones.” — Mythprint

“This book is stunning. It has all of the rich fantastic tapestry of Swordspoint, and more depth, more wonder and truth and humanity; and, of course, lots of parties and handsome men and costumes and scheming and cutting remarks and intimate little dinners and lots and lots of sex. If Oscar Wilde were writing high fantasy, he’d want to write The Fall of the Kings.” — Sarah Smith

“Gorgeous prose and a galloping story, with a wickedly funny appreciation for academic knifefights, and a deep understanding of a true scholar’s passion for his subject.” — Mary Doria Russell

“A charmed, witty romp through an alternate history’s history, full of appealing characters and enough mystery to keep me turning pages … A very intelligent novel, skillfully written by two writers from whom I’ve come to expect the best.” — Patricia McKillip

“Considering the splendid talents of Ellen Kushner and Delia Sherman when writing under their individual by-lines, it’s really no surprise that The Fall of the Kings is the treat it is. Engaging characters, with their sharp dialogue and complex relationships, and a wonderfully-realized setting combine here for one of my favourite books this year — and so far it’s already been a very good year.” — Charles de Lint

“Ellen Kushner and Delia Sherman combine their talents to fine effect in The Fall of the Kings, pulling off the considerable trick of making elegant prose seem effortless. The characters are as vivid, complex and varied as the milieu in which they operate, and the contrast inherent in the reemergence of a deep-rooted, archetypal magic into an elaborately mannered society is piquant and compelling. I hope further collaborations are in store!” — Jacqueline Carey

“I tore into The Fall of the Kings with the enthusiasm of an emigrant allowed to make a sudden, unexpected trip home. Not the least of its considerable rewards is the admirably compacted density of that particular space-time invention, the other world. Kushner and Sherman don’t spin fables or knit fancies: they are world-forgers, working in a language of iron and air.” — Gregory Maguire, author of Wicked and Lost

“Thank goodness for the flu, or I never would’ve had the time to properly luxuriate in this deliciously rapturous book! Sherman and Kushner are painters of great subtlety and sophistication, giving us a rich fantasy world where swordsmen and lady pirates seem every bit as believable as scholars. Sacred sexuality, drawing room politics, and mystical secrets all walk right into our hearts in the form of unforgettable characters. I enjoyed every page, every line, of this book.” — Cecilia Tan

The Fall of the Kings tells a rich, intricate story, in which politics, passion, scholarship and magic are intriguingly entwined. It’s a triumphant return to a captivating country. I hope it receives the attention it merits.” — Elizabeth A. Lynn

“A delicious read, rich in character and dialogue; dark, sexy, and wickedly funny by turns. I loved it. You’ll love it too.” — Terri Windling

“This is how fantasy should be written. Kushner and Sherman write with grace, style, wit, and a delicious attention to detail. The Fall of the Kings is that rare thing these days; a novel that sweeps you in and lets you live the story with the characters.” — Lynn Flewelling

“This is a richly imagined tale in which attractive characters, realistically enmeshed in social, political, and personal concerns, must deal with the resurgence of ancient wizardry and royal divine right into a more rationalistic and modern political system…A sparkling job! Further adventures are eagerly awaited.” — Suzy M. Charnas

“I loved Swordspoint and its world. From Ellen Kushner and Delia Sherman, I expected brilliance and wit. I found it. I expected style and substance, and I found those too. I also found truth, love, hearts of fire, hearts of gold, and even a few hearts of substances less noble but even more interesting. The Fall of the Kings makes Swordspoint and its world even deeper and richer. I had astronomically high expectations for this book. It surpassed them all. Thanks for letting me share the joy that is this book.” — Caroline Stevermer

The Fall of the Kings evokes a sumptuous (not wholly unfamiliar) world whose inhabitants, willing or not, must play out a blend of animal ritual and inky passion…Rife with suspense and hilarity, Kushner and Sherman’s magnificent pasquinade of kingship and scholarship should enchant anyone who has ever aspired to either.” — Elizabeth E. Wein

“What a wonderful book, beautifully written with marvellously magical moments. Reading it felt like seeing a stained glass window or a tapestry come to life, aself-contained story but clearly part of a larger history. It makes me feel very positive about what it’s possible to achieve within the fantasy genre.” — Jo Walton

“Ellen Kushner and Delia Sherman are the true heirs of Dorothy Dunnett. Their characters are as likely to wield words as daggers, and The Fall of the Kings is as crammed with incident, intrigues both amorous and academic, swordfights and politics and magic, as any reader could hope for.” — Kelly Link

“A brilliant book, evocatively written.” — Sarah Ash

“The best-written fantasy novel of the year … This is a book of witty dialogue, prose as precise as a blow to the heart and as glittering as the sword that dealt it, gorgeous young men and women to suit any taste, hot and elegant sex to suit any sexual persuasion, magic with a true aura of numinous danger, thrilling fights, thrilling scholarly debates, old books, swashbuckling aunts, exquisite clothing, ancient rituals, hot chocolate, female pirates, erotic paintings, expensive jewelery, political intrigue, taverns, ghosts, true love, true kings, and a convincing demonstration of the importance of first sources in historical research..” — Green Man Review

“Elegantly written, rich with conversations, peopled with confused, misled, and sincere protagonists, this novel provides a rare experience of a richly conceived and incessantly surprising world. Every detail, from the holiday observations to the make of a man’s boots, seems exactly true, and completely believable. No small book could contain such rich complexity. This book is big enough to live in, and its readers will be glad to take it as their residence.” — Laurie J. Marks, SFRevu

“This is what Dickens or Eliot might have written, if they had written fantasy. Indeed, its connections seem strongest with the father of historical fiction, Sir Walter Scott … Go out now and buy The Fall of the Kings. Put it on your nightstand next to Swordspoint. When it’s been raining all day and you are bored beyond endurance, pick it up and enter a world as complicated as our own, and considerably more colorful. Just remember to take plenty of chocolate.” —

“The characters, fully developed and complex creations, are prisoners of their place in society, which makes them all the more interesting when they step out of their station in life. The Fall of the Kings is an experience not to be missed.” — The Best Reviews

“‘What is this book about?’ The Fall of the Kings is open to too many answers. Ultimately, it is about itself, about its richness and complexity, its passages of uncomfortable intensity and dream-laden mythic potency, its juxtapositions of substance and triviality, and about the resolution of where our arbitrary but rational reality meets the coherent and unreasonable legacy of the past. The reality in this case is that this is one of those very rare novels, especially in the fantasy genre, that is not only substantial, but unique. Tour de force? Most certainly.” —

“One of the top fantasies of the year.” — Emerald City

“This brilliant “sequel” to Kushner’s Swordspoint lays out a tale of passion burning too brightly amidst the political intrigues of academia and hidden history.” — Lambda


“Witty, sharp-eyed, full of interesting people and fascinating conversations… a delight.” — Newsday

“Swordspoint begins with a single drop of blood on a field of new-fallen snow, an image that burned itself forever into my mind the first time I encountered it. I can close my eyes and see it still. It’s a terrific opening, and unforgettable opening…and the book just gets better from there. It is long time past time that Swordspoint was back in print.” — George R.R. Martin

“Charming, exciting, and ironically provocative, rather as though Georgette Heyer had turned her hand to fantasy.” — Peter S. Beagle, author of The Last Unicorn

“A scintillating gem … witty, wicked, fascinating, beautifully written, and unique.” — Joan D. Vinge, author of The Snow Queen

“An elegant, talented, and vastly enjoyable novel.” — Samuel R. Delany

“A many-faceted pleasure. It manages to evoke both the witty Regency romances of Georgette Heyer and the fog-shrouded, dangerous streets of fritz Leiber’s Lankhmar. At the same time there is a cutting edge to the plotting and characterization that marks Ellen Kushner as a writer with a distinctive voice of her own.” — Guy Gavriel Kay

“[Kushner] draws you through the story with such lucid, powerful writing that you come to trust her completely — and she doesn’t let you down … It’s the kind of trust that only a special kind of writer earns: the writer who has so fully realized the story’s world and characters, who has such perfect command of language and structure that the story never falters. Watch this woman — she’s going to be one of the great ones.” — Orson Scott Card

“A glorious thing, the book we might have had if Noel Coward had written a vehicle for Errol Flynn. It’s wicked and visual and witty, and it pulls you in like the doorman of a Bourbon Street bar.” — Gene Wolfe

“Ellen Kushner writes like an angel … pellucid, poetically structured prose [and] a gathering sense of tragic reality. I have not in some time read a better writer.” — Algis Budrys in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction

“For all those lovers of Dumas, Baroness Orczy and Dorothy Dunnett … [with] Dickensian characters and ready wit … If you have even an ounce of interest in the interplay of sharp swords, and sharper tongues, then Swordspoint is for you.” — Charles de Lint

“[Kushner] draws you through the story with such lucid, powerful writing that you come to trust her completely — and she doesn’t let you down … It’s the kind of trust that only a special kind of writer earns: the writer who has so fully realized the story’s world and characters, who has such perfect command of language and structure that the story never falters. Watch this woman — she’s going to be one of the great ones.” — Orson Scott Card in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction

“Intelligent, humorous and dramatic, with a fine, malicious feeling for the operation of gossip in a closed society.” — Publishers Weekly

“A bravura performance, a delight from start to finish.” — Locus

“A tale as witty, beguiling and ingenious as a collaboration between Jane Austen and John M. Harrison … a well-nigh faultless first novel.” — Interzone

“Kushner stirs her disparate elements well, persuasively drawing readers into this distinctive fantasy world.” — Booklist

“Sensuous … told with mannered style, this witty fairy tale for grown ups satisfies all the requirements for a grand escape.” — The Boston Herald

“Brilliantly written, exciting and a delight to read. [An] absorbing genre-bender … It should certainly appeal to lovers of intelligent fantasy … Her writing is clear, fluid and beautiful, with wonderful dialogue… Swordspoint is both moving and witty, a rare combination … I didn’t want it to end.” — Aboriginal SF

“Colourful, exciting, and packed with action.” — The Sydney Morning Herald (Australia)

“What Swordspoint does is to take up themes essential to the literature of outsiders: the deceptiveness of appearances, the anguish and bravado of alienation, and, perhaps most important, the challenges that face anyone who crosses borders, geographical, cultural, or economic … Swordspoint is a tour de force, as riddled with feints and parries as a duel … rich with nuance and subtle shifts … Ellen Kushner ably delivers what her first chapter promises: a world deceptively familiar yet deeply unlike our own. Readers who listen carefully, who resist the temptation to impose their values on these vividly realized characters, will be amply rewarded.” — Wavelengths

“An unforgettable book … [with] memorable characters, and levels of meaning lurking just beneath a seemingly simple storyline.” — FolkTales

“A brilliant adult fairytale set in a fantasy Renaissance-like world. A fascinating story of political intrigue and the romance between a swordsman-for-hire and his lover, a young scholar. An excellent read.” — Lambda


“Nobody is writing more elegant and gorgeous English these days than Ellen Kushner. Her books ought to be given to writing classes as texts on how the English language can be made so pure and cold and clear that you long to drink it down … Is there anything this writer can’t do well?” — Orson Scott Card in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction

“What a perfectly splendid story, splendidly told, with great style and orginality. A bow of deep appreciation to Ms. Kushner, and my gratitude!” — Anne McCaffrey

“A book to introduce those who know nothing of the ballads to their rich and deep content…and intrigue those already familiar with them.” — Maddy Prior, lead singer for Steeleye Span

“Lyrically written and humanly moving. Ellen Kushner’s treatment of the True Thomas legend is worthy to rank with those of Kipling and Cabell.” — Poul Anderson

“Lovingly crafted, beautifully wrought — a jewel of a book. Ellen Kushner is one of the best of the new fantasy writers.” — Judith Tarr

“An earthy, witty, even mildly erotic book, as convincing in its depiction of faerie passion and prejudice as in its descriptions of the narrowly focused life of the Middle Ages.” — St. Louis Post-Dispatch

“A happy blend of discreet scholarship and literary style … Kushner creates a lavish microcosm where riddles and runes and magical transformations govern.” — Publishers Weekly

“Studded with adulterous noblemen, promiscuous courtiers and sensuous love scenes, the old fairy tale takes in a ribald contemporary feel under Kushner’s pen, which paradoxically is truer to the story’s original pre-Victorian bawdiness.” — The Boston Herald

“Elegant and cozy. Witty and wise. Innocent and sensuous and, at times, downright sexy. Kushner’s Thomas the Rhymer does it all.” — Jane Yolen

“What might seem all quaint, all harps, houppelandes, elf mounds and aristocracy, takes on a very human immediacy in Kushner’s skilled treatment…Richly imagined scenes if Faerie, elegant and incongruous as the films of Cocteau. Kushner’s elves seek out humankind with a near-vampire hunger and a bittersweet desire. Bu the end of Thomas the Rhymer we understand the attraction mortals hold for them.” — Locus

“Thomas the Rhymer is the real thing. It belongs on the same shelf with Lord Dunsany, James Branch Cabell, James Stephens, E.R. Eddison, Ursula K. Le Guin, and the rest.” — Aboriginal Science Fiction

“If you were afraid that Kushner’s first novel, Swordspoint, was a flash in the pan, you can stop worrying. Thomas the Rhymer . . . stopped me in my tracks. Few books are this good! If you read fantasy at all, don’t miss this one; Kushner is setting up to be one of the most important fantasists alive!” — Locus

“Her Thomas takes on the life which the old ballads so often deny him and . . . really touches the heart.” — Andre Norton

“Evocative, stirring, filled with life and color . . . lets us live for a while in those magical countries we’ve never seen but that we always knew must exist somwhere.” — Lisa Goldstein

“A charming book, full of wit, imagination, the spikey sweetness of young love and the polished grain of old . . . more please!” — Suzy McKee Charnas

“Splendid . . . touching and tender . . . there is great technical skill in the way Kushner recreates the lyrical atmosphere of a folk tale … ” — Interzone

“Relaxed and flowing, poetry counterpointing wit . . . It has a phantasmagorical quality . . . the enchantment is underpinned with tension and urgency . . . a tour de force . . . will surely endear itself to any who love old ballads, whiffs of faerie, and fine fantasy.” — New York Review of Science Fiction

“[This] inspired fantasy . . . rings true and deep as tales told for generations [and] reveals unexpected worlds and times, and the far reaches of the human heart. Ellen Kushner knows what it’s like to be a human in Elfland, and Elf-touched in Middle-Earth, and by the end of this novel, her readers do too.” — Susanna J. Sturgis, The Martha’s Vineyard Times

“Ellen Kushner has discovered a new and poetic way to retell the old tale. The book reads with the story-telling power of the old ballad.” — The Times (London)