Title: Kushiel’s Dart
Author: Jacqueline Carey
Review number: 27
Stand alone/series: first in a series of books – so far there are six.
Summary: Amazon.UK says A massive fantasy tale about the violent death of an old age and the birth of a new one. Here is a novel of grandeur, luxuriance, sacrifice, betrayal, and deeply laid conspiracies. Born with a scarlet mote in her left eye, Phedre no Delaunay is sold into indentured servitude as a child. When her bond is purchased by an enigmatic nobleman, she is trained in history, theology, politics, foreign languages, and the arts of pleasure. Above all, she learns the ability to observe, remember, and analyze. Exquisite courtesan, yet talented spy, she may seem an unlikely heroine…but when Phedre stumbles upon a plot threatening her homeland, Terre d’Ange, she has no choice but to act. Betrayed into captivity in the barbarous northland of Skaldia, and accompanied only by disdainful young warrior-priest, Phedre makes a harrowing escape and an even more harrowing journey, to return to her people and deliver them a warning of the impending invasion. And that proves only the first step in a quest that will take her to the edge of despair and beyond.
Why did I read the book: Thea dared me!
I was dared
by Thea to read this and have to say that if it wasn’t for it I would never have picked it up. The book tells the tale of Phedre no Delaunay, as narrated by herself as her memoirs. The plot is extremely complex so I will cheat a bit and use Thea’s own words to summarize: Phedre no Delaunay is a child born beautiful as any D’Angelline…but for a single scarlet mote in her eye. Because of this small flaw, Phedre is denied a position as an adept in the Court of Night Blooming Flowers (the collective houses of honored courtesans), but can make her marque (paying her debt) through other work. Sold by her mother to one of the houses of the Night Court, Phedre is discovered for what she really is–the mote in her eye is not a flaw, but a mark of those god touched by Kushiel. She is an anguisette–one who can take pleasure from pain–and the only one to be born in generations. Phedre’s marque (think of it as her indenture contract) is bought by the wise and kind Anafiel no Delaunay, who trains her in the arts of espionage and secrets.
And so we follow her accounts of her life from learning her place in the world, to accepting it and becoming a master courtesan and master spy working for Delaunay who has a foot in the political intrigues of the Court of Terre D’ange – he uses Phedre by organizing her assignations with political figures – the logic behind it being, everyone talks in bed and everyone talks important things to an anguisette. And so they learn of a plot so hideous that will change their lives forever.
The book is 700 pages long, so the story has as many twists as necessary to keep one turning the pages and a lot happens to Phedre’s. Enough to call her life, epic.
I must say that the first few chapters were extremely difficult for me to read, not only because of all the historical, religious and political details of the world building which were quite hard to keep up with, but mostly because the first 300 pages or so hold the bulk of Phedre’s sexual encounters with her patrons and let me tell you, they are not for the faint hearted. Some of them are truly gruesome and I was highly disturbed and on the verge of quitting the book altogether.
The fact that for Pehdre, extreme pain brings extreme pleasure was quite heavy – some of the descriptions of the tools used to draw blood and pain left me awestruck. The only two things that kept me going were Thea’s reassurances that things would change and the narrative style of Jacqueline Carey that kept me wanting to know what was going to happen next, against even my better judgment. Because she managed to convince me somehow that under the motto of Great Elua, (the main God of Terre D’ange) Love as thou art wilt, love and sex can come in any form and the characters believed in this truth very deeply. And for Phedre, being a courtesan and anguisette was a religious calling to which she submits by choice: “What yields is not always weak” . It may sound as though the book is sex-heavy: it isn’t.
Fortunately, after 300 pages, the story shifts from Terre D’ange to the outside world and the politics take a center stage along with the fight for her survival. And this is where I became highly engrossed not because of Phedre or because of the intrigue. But because one of the secondary characters, Joscelin, comes to the center stage. At this point I was hooked: following my own tradition, I fell in love with the hero.
Joscelin was a priest-warrior, a young man who makes a vow to serve and protect Phedre – as a member of the Casseline Order, he is a master of arms who pledged himself as the Perfect Companion. And so he is – where Phedre goes he goes along, protecting her and collecting her pieces more times than I can count and eventually, loving her.
I said to Thea, had the book been in third person or had we been privy to Joscelin’s thoughts, it may have made things easier for me and maybe I would have liked the book even more. But alas, the point is moot, Ifs don’t exist in literature and that was not the story the author wanted to tell. So, this was to me, a very uncomfortable read as I could never predict Phedre’s actions and feelings – even though most of her actions were fueled by her true love for her land and for the gods. One of the things that are more outstanding is her love-hate relationship with the arch-villainess of the book. Even though she was supposed to hate and fear her above all things, she still felt attracted to her in many ways. It took me three weeks to get through it, and I am usually a fast reader.
I finished it one week ago, and still some things linger, so I guess it is not all bad. You may have noticed that my thoughts on the book are all over the place because so are my feelings about it. I felt equally attracted and repulsed by many things. I do miss reading about Joscelin but that is not enough to make a book, not even for me. Ultimately, as a debut novel, this is an incredible piece of well written literature which was unfortunately, just not my cup of tea.
Notable quotes/parts: The last 200 pages go into a crescendo as they prepare for the final battle against the invaders to Terre D’ange. I just LOVE the part where Phedre goes to pass a message to the Queen and is taken prisoner and tortured and Joscelin manages to get to her in the 11th hour. Le sigh.
Additional Thoughts: There are two more books that tell the tale of Phedre and Joscelin. I would like to read more, but I am not sure I could cope.
Verdict: I am truly torn about this one. Some things I LOVED, some things I HATED. As I said above, it is not a book for the faint-hearted. If you like your books to be light and with a clear happy ending, definitely stay away.
Rating: 7, because it is well written and the world that the author created was believable and complex. No more than 7 because my level of enjoyment varied from chapter to chapter.
Reading Next: I don’t know. I need something lighter and with a clear happy ending right now. So, probably a Loretta Chase. Or Demon Moon. Maybe both.