Phedre was abandoned by her family to the Night Court, where the religion-sanctioned courtesans live and train to fulfill the precincts of their pleasure-promoting god. Yet she is destined to tread a more unusual path: a scarlet mote in her dark eyes marks her as an anguisette, one who derives pleasure from pain. When she is adopted by Anafiel Delaunay, a prominent member of the royal court who realizes what she is, she is trained not merely for pleasure, but also as a scholar… and a spy. Phedre endeavors to untangle the web of secrets that surrounds her new benefactor and becomes embroiled in more court intrigue than she had ever even guessed at.
I was not really expecting to like this book. I expected it would be over-the-top sexually graphic, with perhaps a fluffy plot to go along with it and maybe a melodramatic love triangle to round out that trifecta. I mean, just look at the summary!
I was not expecting an epic story (on kindle, I didn’t see that it was 900+ pages) of political intrigue and desperate war, a fascinating world, and a great main character. I certainly was not expecting to love this book.
I’ll leave the characters until now and focus on the world, because by Jove, I think that it’s what made me fall in love with the book to begin with. I’m a historian, what can I say: I dig intricate world building. I’ve seen criticism about how Phedre’s world is an “alternate world” earth, but I think that those critics don’t understand that an “alternate earth” is in many ways even more complex to design than one pulled out of pure imagination. The premise is that Christianity, perhaps the greatest contributor to medieval western culture, never had the chance to grow because Jesus (accidentally) had a son, Elua, whilst he was dying on the cross, and God’s angels decided to follow Elua instead, thus changing the course of history. The historical references are the best thing about this world where Phedre’s people, the D’Angelines, are descended from the very angels. The “Tiberian Empire” is perhaps my favourite, as a Roman historian, but I’m rather fond of “Alba” as well.
As for the religion – to be frank, I’d expected it to be rather offensive to anyone Christian, one of those “Jesus was totally married to Mary Magdalen and they totally had sex” things. Instead, I found it rather thoughtful and intriguing – the idea is that Elua was born of Jesus’ blood on the earth and Magdalen’s tears. Terre D’Ange isn’t necessarily a world where Jesus was irrelevant (the Yeshuites, the followers of Yeshua/Jesus, have become the replacements of the much maligned Jews in this pseudo-medieval world), merely that it didn’t work out the way God had planned. Of course, Elua’s precept of “love as thou wilt” means that Terre D’Ange is the opposite of the medieval world in that sex was not seen as sinful, but a form of prayer. The D’Angelines themselves are rather blithely unprejudiced as an extension of that precept – prostitutes are normal parts of their life, there is no fuss made over same-sex coupling, etc. It made for an interesting fantasy world, at least.
The politics were, in the beginning, hard to follow. I, who can easily name off dozens of minor George RR Martin characters, had difficulties remembering just who some of these people were, and especially who disliked whom. I’m not sure why I found it difficult. After a while, it became easier. There’s a glossary in the beginning of the book which would have been helpful, but there was no way I was going to switch back and forth on my kindle between the two. It got easier once the story switched from political intrigue to a more straight-up diplomacy.
The sex was actually not as graphic as I’d expected. There were a lot of sex scenes in the first quarter of the book, until they got a bit repetitive, but they weren’t quite as… anatomically specific as I’d thought it would be (although that’s not to say it was tame), and there were a few times where there was a fade to black rather than describe a similar sex scene to ones that we’d already experienced. That was nice. (I’m not really big on sex scenes, if you can’t tell. Usually I just find them rather awkward… looking at you, GRRM and that time I laid down my kindle at the Dany lesbian sex scene right when my nice reserved mum glanced at it. Thanks for that, GRRM.)
I enjoyed the amount of magic in the book as well (that is to say, rather nonexistent, except for Hyacinthe’s fortune-telling). I think magic is difficult to do very well, and is best in trace amounts, as it is here. In fact, when it did pop up in a major way, I was not expecting it. It did make sense with Hyacinthe’s character because of his Tsingano (pseudo-Romani, I think) background.
Phedre was one of those characters that again, I’d expected not to like, but was pleasantly surprised by. Being an anguisette, it is emotional rather than physical pain which tortures her, and that makes her far more interesting. Initially, she is strong-willed with a tendency towards brattiness, but her experiences soon mold her into a more sympathetic character. She who is so charming is not immune to the charms of others, nor is she without fault.
It is Josecelin, her uptight bodyguard, who is my favourite character. Trained since childhood in his profession, sworn to one of the angels who followed Elua, he swears oaths, and he keeps them.
Anafiel Delaunay and his other ward, Alcuin, are also great. The relationships between Phedre and Alcuin and Anafiel, I thought, were well done – part romantic love, part hero worship, part familial affection. The book has other fantastic characters – Waldemar Selig, Isidore D’Ainglemort, Drustan mab Necthana, the Twins, Melisande… I don’t want to talk too much about the characters, because I don’t want to give anything away. (I’m not a huge fan of Hyacinthe, actually, and I’m not quite sure why).
I would highly recommend this book to anyone who…
a) likes epic fantasy
b) doesn’t mind sex scenes
c) won’t be bothered by the religion
If you fit a, b, and c, go now. Read it. Enjoy.