Audrey recommends: Privilege of the Sword by Ellen Kushner
Reading Level: Adult
Summary: The eccentric Mad Duke of Tremontaine decides to teach his niece, Katherine, how to become a swordmaster rather than marry her off to an eligible nobleman.
Audrey says: Ellen Kushner describes her Riverside series as “a melodrama of manners”: Jane-Austen-style social commentary in a bloody, high-stakes action-adventure. The ladies in town gossip about the latest slaughter as if it were a fashionable dress. Literary opinions are settled by a duel to first blood. “Melodrama of manners” is now my new favorite genre of all time.
Leaving aside the environment, this novel is, at its core, about breaking boundaries. Marriage or death seem to be the only option for a young lady, but the Mad Duke encourages her to take a third option: true independence.
At first, Katherine resists: if she walks around in boy’s clothes, folks will think she’s clinically insane, or worse, an actress. Katherine herself has no issue wearing breeches; she limits herself purely on the perceptions of others. The pressure to marry young, to appear chaste, to rely on men, to avoid making a scene… The societal norms of class and gender completely unravel once she realizes that they’re all illusions.
This brief summary can’t do justice to the detail of Kushner’s world nor the rich interiority of her characters. I’m surprised this cult classic isn’t more well-known; I recommend you read the book for yourself, not least so I have someone to talk to about it.