Kushiel’s Dart is the first novel in the Kushiel’s Legacy series, which came to number six books in total. Jacqueline Carey also wrote an additional trilogy in her Terre D’Ange universe, and over the course of all of her books, pretty much explored every continent in her alternate-history fantasy world. This first book is set in an alternate historical version of Europe, set at about Renaissance times, or somewhat earlier, although the descriptions of the Skaldi society (Vikings) and the Albans (the Celts and Picts) clearly being from more medieval times.
Our protagonists come from Terre D’Ange, which is located where our France would be. In this Universe, Jesus died on the cross and his blood, mingled with the tears of Mary Magdalene, fell to Earth, who gave birth to a new deity, Elua. Not acknowledged by the Yeshuite god, Elua went wandering the world in company with a number of angels who felt compelled to go with him. Eventually, Elua and his angelic companions came to the land that would become Terre D’Ange and settled there. Elua’s main decree to all of his followers was “Love as thou wilt”, and because of this, any sexual act is seen as holy by the D’Angelines. It also means that non-consensual sex of any kind is not only a crime, it’s literal heresy.
Phédre, our unlikely heroine, is the orphaned daughter of a courtesan, who is taken into the household of a mysterious nobleman. She is trained not only in the sexual arts, as a courtesan herself, but taught to watch, listen, observe, and reflect, and her patron, Anafiel Delauney, wants her and his other protegée, Alcuin, to spy for him and ferret out secrets among the nobility who have assignations with them, for reasons he refuses to reveal to them. Phédre has not only sworn herself to the service of Namaah, the goddess of pleasure but is utterly unique in her generation as someone marked by the stern god of punishment, Kushiel. She experiences sexual pleasure through pain, often the more extreme the better, and that makes her a valuable tool for Delauney to ferret out secrets. Both Phédre and Alcuin feel a strong debt of gratitude towards Delauney and therefore serve him with absolute loyalty, but as Phédre gets older, she can’t help but wonder what conspiracy her patron is actually trying to uncover. Unfortunately, by the time she figures out the entire truth, she’s also unearthed a conspiracy against the Crown itself and needs to be removed.
Since this book is more than twenty years old (originally published in 2001), anyone who wants to can find detailed plot summaries online. I don’t really want to reveal too much of the plot, because part of the joys of this book is discovering it all for yourself. In a recent interview, the author herself described the book as “Kinky, but feminist! Epic fantasy, but alternate history! Tattoos! Slow-burn romance! Cool fight choreography! Subversive theology! Big battle scenes! Lyrical prose for readers who love words like ‘ormulu’ and ‘incarnadine!’” So if you think that might be something for you, you should absolutely consider giving it a chance. I hadn’t read the book for more than a decade (probably closer to fifteen years by now) and was very happy to discover that it still absolutely holds up as well as it did in my memory, and still very much deserves its place as one of my favourite fantasy novels. I had forgotten just how slow it is to get started, but on the other hand, when the action finally kicks off at about the 40% mark, it doesn’t slow down until the very last chapters and some of the action leaves you absolutely breathless.
I first discovered this book back in 2004. I bought my mass-market paperback copy in Barnes and Noble on Union Square in New York while visiting my BFF Lydia. So it felt extra special to be re-reading it while I was visiting her and her husband now in their house in Vermont. The reason I remember so very clearly when and where I was when I first got this book is not only because it was unlike any fantasy I had read up until that point, pretty much, and it completely engrossed me, but also because the copy of the book that I bought had a misprint, where about halfway through, in possibly the most tense and dramatic section of the whole book (and that’s saying something), about 70 pages of the book were missing. There was just a repeat of the previous 70 pages instead. I can promise you that it was a terrible place to suddenly be ripped out of the story, and I had to rush back to the bookstore the next day and secure myself another copy (which thankfully did not have the misprint), so I could see if my beloved protagonists survived their desperate trek through the icy northern wastes (if you’ve read the book, you know which bit I’m referring to).
I decided to re-read this in July because Jacqueline Carey published her companion novel Cassiel’s Servant at the start of August, where we get to know Phédre’s unfailingly loyal (if initially deeply disapproving) companion Jocelin Verruil a lot better. Not only do we get to see the events of Kushiel’s Dart from his POV, but we also find out about his life before he gave his vow to protect and serve Phédre, no matter what. Unlike E.L. James and Stephanie Meyer, who also wrote POV novels from “the other side”, this doesn’t feel like a cynical cash grab to me. For one thing, Carey waited more than 20 years after publishing her original novel to do this, and Joscelin’s book comes out 12 years after the last book Carey published in her Terre D’Ange universe. She’s written a lot of other things in the interim, and I don’t think she’d write and publish this companion novel if she didn’t feel like it could shed new light on her already cult classic novel.
It also pleases me that this book happened to become my 52nd review of the year. It feels good to Cannonball on a really excellent novel.
Judging a book by its cover: In the decades since the novel first came out, it’s had many different covers, but this is pretty much the original one. It was recently re-published with some gorgeous UK covers, that I’m going to have to resist buying (I already have the entire original trilogy, I don’t need new copies). I know it’s probably irrational, but I hate that the illustrated Phédre has bangs – why did anyone think that was a good idea? Phédre is supposed to be absolutely gorgeous (apparently nearly all D’Angelines are near-perfect specimens), and based on the historical setting this is supposed to take place in, that hairstyle feels very out of place.
Crossposted on my blog
Bingo #5 (diagonal): History (Emily Wilde’s Encyclopedia of Faeries), Queer Lives (All Boys Aren’t Blue), North America (Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow), Sex (this)