In 2001 I was an administrative assistant for the managers that oversaw the book buyers at Borders Books (may it rest in peace). One of the buyers thought I would like Kushiel’s Dart and recommended it. Once in my hands I couldn’t put it down, reading so fast that on subsequent readings I discovered whole paragraphs that had previously been skipped. It was completely different from any fantasy I had read before and quickly became one of my most recommended books to anyone who I thought would be okay with the bdsm elements. My husband and I loved this book, and the rest of the Kushiel’s Legacy series that followed, so much we named our eldest daughter after a character. It has probably been about a decade since my last reread so it seemed a perfect fit for the Throwback Thursday bingo square, which completed my bingo row!
The kernel that started this book was a miss-remembered quote about an angel from when Jacqueline Carey was researching for her first published book, Angels: Celestial Spirits in Legend and Art. Then the main character, Phedre, who turns the damsel in distress trope on its head as she enjoys being in danger, came to her and Kushiel’s Dart was born. Jacqueline refers to her setting creation as “cafeteria style history”, where she took bits of European history from different time periods, and mashed them together to create a world with vaguely European analogs.
The country of our heroine is Terre d’Ange, which is loosely based on France, where the blood of Blessed Elua and his Companions has mingled with that of humans, thereby creating a people touched by the grace of the angel/deities they worship, D’Angelines. The main doctrine of Elua, and the precept with which Terre d’Ange is founded, is “to love as though wilt”. All types of love between consenting adults is accepted and revered.
The Court of Nightblooming Flowers are courtesan pleasure houses that represent thirteen different aspects of the angel Naahmah (modesty, healing, perfection, fragility, dignity, wealth, creativity, devotion, mysticism, sensuality, dominance, humor, and submission). Naahmah is said to have lain with strangers in the marketplace for coin when Elua and his Companions had no money for food as they wandered the world before the founding of Terre d’Ange. She is revered by adepts of the Night Court who prostitute themselves in sacred service to honor her. Clients pay for the privilege of dalliance with adepts of Naahmah, courtesans dedicated to her service. Many adepts are bond servants to their houses. Payment for service goes to the house, a freely given “patron gift” in honor of Naahmah goes to paying for the completion of the adept’s marque. The marque is a tattoo from the base of the spine to the nape of the neck. Once completed, the adept is free to join the house or set up a salon of their own.
At the tender age of four, Phedre is sold as a bond servant to Cereus House, first among the thirteen house of the Night Court. Each house has it’s own cannon of beauty or skills and Phedre doesn’t seem to fit any of them. She is considered flawed because of a scarlet mote that stands out starkly against the rich brown of her left eye. It is Anafiel Delaunay who puts a name to what the mote signifies, it is called Kushiel’s dart and means she is an anguissette, touched by the angel Kushiel. The first born in three generations she is has been chosen by Kushiel to experience pleasure in pain. Kushiel was the punisher of the One God before he left heaven to become one of Elua’s Companions. He understood that the pain and chastisement he gave the sinners in his charge was an act of love, and the subjects in his care came to love him for it. Anafiel buys Phedre’s marque and though he adopts her into his household she is still a bond servant until her marque is made. Anafiel raises Phedre to be foremost among courtesans but also has her study languages and history, lessons in observation and memorization, and even tumbling, all of which leads to her becoming a consummate spy.
The kingdom of Terre d’Ange is ruled by the aging King Ganelon de la Courcel whose only heir is the orphaned Dauphine, Ysandre de la Courcel. There are those who would rather see someone else on the throne instead of an unmarried young woman. Anafiel uses Phedre’s skills as courtesan and spy to further his agenda. Being an anguissette, who experiences pleasure in pain, she is interesting bait to tempt those with darker desires. In an attempt to safe guard her, she has only partial knowledge of what he is about, which is a double edged sword as she is also ignorant to his ultimate goals. What follows are intrigues, betrayals, unlikely alliances, epic sword fights and battles, magic, daring escapes, heroic sacrifice, and romance in a veritable game of thrones as powers try to protect or gain the throne of Terre d’Ange.
Being an openly and unabashedly sexual character who enjoys being subservient in sex, Phedre is unlike any heroine I have ever read. But those are only a small part of what makes her an interesting character. She has a keen and quick thinking intellect, a kind and generous heart, she is brave and determined, steadfast in her loyalties and full of compassion. Through her journeys she explores the many facets of what it means to serve Naahmah and discovers the purpose for which Kushiel has marked her.
In the Kushiel’s Legacy series, Jacqueline Carey writes in a lush voice with rich descriptions, painting vivid images in the reader’s mind. She transports you to a world that never was but is so deeply imagined you feel like it could have. The years have not dimmed my ardor for this book, and I was as entranced reading now as I was seventeen years ago reading it for the first time.