25 Years of Spectra: THE PRIVILEGE OF THE SWORD (2006) by Ellen Kushner


With her second appearance on the 25 Years of Spectra list, Ellen Kushner talks about her 2006 novel (following her collaboration with Delia Sherman on The Fall of the Kings), The Privilege of the Sword and the difficulties of coming up with a title.

“The naming of books is a difficult matter.

Either you get the perfect title right away, or you swim through the seven circles of hell trying to find one that works.

The Privilege of the Sword fell into the latter camp.

While I was writing it, I was happy just to refer to it as “the Katherine book.” (Although there were a few ill-advised early months when I was very taken with “First Disguise”–
from a line of my heroine’s, “First disguise, then revelation!” But try saying that aloud, and you see how cruel it would be to bookstores and customers. We like to be nice to them.)

But then came the terrible day when I had to turn the book in, and suddenly Spectra, quite reasonably, wanted a title. And so began my torment. Nothing felt quite right. My partner lobbied hard for “The Mad Duke,” but I felt it would be unfair to my heroine to name her book after her uncle–and my agent and editor thought it sounded like a historical romance, anyway.

I forget when exactly I decided it would be great to use a phrase from a song: a seventeenth-century lyric from the English Civil War called “The Dominion of the Sword. Cool title, huh? Ever since I heard English folksinger Martin Carthy* – one of my total love gods, whose music was also one of the primary inspirations for my novel Thomas the Rhymer–sing it in a club (in a slightly updated version), I adored that song. With a driving beat, eerie guitar work, and lines like this:

Lay by your pleading,
Law lies a bleeding;
Burn all your studies down, and
Throw away your reading

it had always reminded me of my first novel, Swordspoint (to which the new book was a sort-of sequel).

So I proposed for my title “The Dominion of the Sword.” Or possibly “The Opinion of the Sword.” I even inserted a line into the novel where someone says something pithy about it, so it would resonate:

“The duel is the ultimate arbiter of truth. Where men’s judgment may be called into question, the opinion of the sword always holds fast.” (p. 84)

But nobody at the publishing house liked it!

So I went back to the proverbial drawing board, and pulled another verse from the original:

Small pow’r the word has,
And can afford us
Not half so much privilege as
The sword does.

And The Privilege of the Sword it became.

My only sorrow was that if we had called it “The Opinion of the Sword,” the acronym would have been TOOTS. But my sorrow turned to joy when someone on my LiveJournal blog pointed out that the acronym for The Privilege of the Sword was “TPOTS”, and could be pronounced “teapots.”

I am happy, now.

* * *

*You can watch a recent live performance of “The Dominion of the Sword” by Martin Carthy & Friends over on YouTube–the song starts at about 3:00 in. The original–with that killer guitar of his–is on his album Right of Passage.

–Ellen Kushner, July 2010



To see the complete list, click here