All in 2016 I was going on and on about Captive Prince (and one of the things that I’ve been going on about is how I am just going to have to change my rating for the series, because they are one of my top 3 most favorably remembered books/series of that year and 3/5 stars for any of them just seems unreasonable) and how, along with probably every other modern day epic fantasy series, it’s a wonderful spiritual successor to A Song of Ice and Fire. That’s still true, but by the time it was done, I had started to feel desperate, because I wanted another series like it, and wasn’t sure where to turn.
And when I say “like it,” I don’t simply mean that I wanted any epic fantasy series, because look, there are plenty of those. I meant more specifically that I wanted something that treats sex and sexuality less as antagonistic disruptors in the universe, and more as positive features. To be more specific, though I wouldn’t have written anything off simply for including rape or sexual violence, I wanted sex to be not be primarily used as a weapon of oppression or for ulterior motives, like it is in A Song of Ice and Fire. In that series, positive portrayals of sex are not the norm; almost every female character is raped or threatened thereof, and the women who initiate sex do so to manipulate men, with few exceptions.
I wanted a fantasy universe where, at the very least, sex is not the absolute worst thing that can happen to an unsuspecting female character. Captive Prince is dodgy with this, because it features a society with literal sex slaves, but for all of the obvious wrongness of owning your “lover,” it tries to posit that the rules of the slave-patron relationship tend to favor the slave in terms of pleasure and rewards. (And, look, I’m not trying to defend that or debate whether or not that’s ACTUALLY okay, and it will understandably make a lot of people uncomfortable or even be a deal-breaker, and that’s cool. The only point I’m trying to make is that, even with these fucked-up power structures, the books intend to establish that sex is a mutually beneficial thing, not a weapon.) And, like, the whole time I was circling the drain of despair wondering how many other books were out there like this, Kushiel’s Dart was there the whole time! Kushiel’s Dart, like Captive Prince, doesn’t necessarily portray a bunch of happily promiscuous people tossing their genitals at each other with no strings attached, but the courtesans of the Night Court are not considered to be members of the underclass, and the patrons who contract with them aren’t subject to secrecy or shame. Sex is just something that happens, and moreso, it’s considered a divine covenant wherein the courtesan is performing a service of worship to one of the country’s founding gods, Naamah. Indeed, the motto of Terre d’Ange is “Love as thou wilt.”
I just typed out the last two paragraphs discussing sex in Kushiel’s Dart because I guess I felt like it needed to be said — these are thoughts that come to mind reading the book, but also it sure would be nice if Medieval European attitudes toward women and sex weren’t so prevalent across the genre otherwise. And yet, I drive myself crazy spending so much time on the sex, because for all that it exists and is integral to the plot, considering Phèdre’s character, it is a complete misrepresentation of the book to call it either “romance” or “erotica,” as it is so listed on Goodreads. It reeks of sexism, to be quite honest, that a book with sex in it by a female author is classified as such, while George R. R. Martin and Terry Goodkind get to run around impaling everything upon the mighty phallus but they’re just fantasy.
Kushiel’s Dart, first and foremost, is a novel about spycraft, subterfuge, and political gamesmanship in a fantasy universe that’s probably an alternate version of Europe. Being those things, in addition to being pretty gosh darn respectful of women and their sexuality, is what makes it revolutionary.
I linked the Kushiel’s Wiki up above because I have already written so much and don’t really feel like rehashing the plot at all, but if nothing else I hope I have conveyed a lot of passion for this book and what it represents and I will absolutely read the rest of the series. Thank you and Elua bless you