Yes, that is a House Of Pain lyric in the title but I have been out of the Cannonball Read for over a year, and if it makes sense to reference House of Pain in any review, it might be Kushiel’s Dart with its protagonist.
Just when I had decided that a full back tattoo really wouldn’t make sense for me given my fashion choices and my preference to be able to cover up tattoos, I read Kushiel’s Dart, and am now back to thinking, “but it would look so cool.” While I spent a good part of last year working my way through romance series, using Malin’s Top 100 List as a starting point, I didn’t even realize this was a favorite of hers until after I had started reading it based on a comment over on The Toast.
After a diet of light reading, Kushiel’s Dart is a bit of a slow starter, as Carey uses her initial pages for world building. As a result, while I was interested in the story, it didn’t truly hit the point of “I can’t wait to see what happens next” until a bit before the halfway point, though all the build up does pay off. Phedre, the narrator, is a courtesan that was initially raised in the Night Court but due to a flaw, a red mark in her eye commonly known as Kushiel’s Dart in her world, she doesn’t enter service in the court, and is sold to a private patron (in our terms, she is an indentured servant rather than slave). Her patron, Delauney expands her education to include politics, history and languages, or all the skills that might come in handy as her his eyes and ears, or spy. Since Phedre writes of these events after they have occurred, the foreshadowing does get a bit heavy handed sometimes. Like Phedre, I wonder at the decisions of her patron Delauney as he kept information from her and his other pupil though it seemed like half the realm knew anyway, and could have possibly made them even more effective in recognizing certain plots (basically, his secret doesn’t seem like that big of a deal once it is finally revealed, and feels rather obvious) . Especially in the first third, I would occasionally get annoyed with Phedre but I think it was in the same way that I get annoyed with teen characters in other novels when their focus seems skewed – so in other words, I got irritated with Phedre for acting like a normal teenager but appreciate that Carey avoided having a perfect main character, and kept her flawed – at least for the first part of the novel.
The story involves quite a bit of world building, and uses our own history as a starting point, diverging when Jesus is on the cross, and an angel, Elua, is born of his blood. Instead of Christianity becoming a powerful force, Elua gains other angels as followers, and they mingle with humans, leaving behind a lineage of people descended from immortals in the country where Kushiel’s Dart takes place. Kushiel was one of Elua’s angel followers, and Phedre’s red dots in her eyes mark her as a true anguisette, or masochist, someone who finds true pleasure in receiving pain. While the Night Court has its own house for those types of desires, Phedre is the first of her kind in generations and unique in how true her desire for this mix of pleasure and pain are. As a result, she quickly becomes famed, and has access to corners Delauney could only dream of entering.
The actual political intrigue is familiar from history and other sweeping fantasy novels – a throne with an aging monarch, a beloved but early deceased heir, and an untested heir that may or may not be able to unite the nation, leading to lots of scheming, plots and potential mutinies as well as treaties and threats involving the surrounding countries and territories. While Phedre’s sexuality plays a large role, it also isn’t any more graphic than many other fantasy series, and focuses more on the sensuality involved rather than the physical acts.
While the novel is the first of a trilogy, I also appreciated that it mostly told its own self-contained story, and didn’t just feel like set up for further novels (though I do expect the next novel could have a quicker beginning, given that it won’t have to set up the background as much). In the same way that history doesn’t stop after major events, the novel’s ending points towards future developments, but Kushiel’s Dart doesn’t have to be seen as yet another huge commitment to a trilogy, especially given this novel’s length on its own. I certainly intend to read the sequel, but if I hadn’t wanted to, this ending certainly would have been satisfying for a stand alone novel, and wouldn’t have made me feel like I was leaving things unfinished if I had decided not to continue on. (I think The Maze Runner was one of the worst culprits of this – I had already decided I didn’t like the novel, wasn’t interested in the series, and then the last page just made me want to know more – fortunately we have the internet now for plot summaries!)