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Thursday, January 12, 2023

Book review: Kushiel's Dart by Jacqueline Carey


Book links: Amazon, Goodreads

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jacqueline Carey is the author of the New York Times bestselling Kushiel's Legacy series of historical fantasy novels, The Sundering epic fantasy duology, postmodern fables "Santa Olivia" and "Saints Astray," and the Agent of Hel contemporary fantasy series. Carey lives in west Michigan. Although often asked by inquiring fans, she does not, in fact, have any tattoos.

Publisher: Tor Books; 1st edition (March 15, 2002) Page count: 928 Literary awards: Locus Award for Best First Novel (2002), Gaylactic Spectrum Award Nominee for Best Novel (2002), Romantic Times Reviewers' Choice Award (RT Award) for Best Fantasy Novel (2001)

REVIEW

Kushiel’s Dart is a fascinating opening to the Kushiel’s Legacy series. An interesting narrative and distinct voice immersed me from the start. Many readers come with certain preconceptions and expectations when they hear about all the sex and the protagonist’s profession (courtesan). Kushiel’s Dart thrills the most when it defies these expectations. So, almost all the time.

The book follows the life of Phèdre nó Delaunay. Born with a scarlet mote in the eye (so-called Kushiel’s Dart), she lacks the pure physique expected from a religious courtesan. Or does she? It turns out this imperfection marks her out as a rare “anguissette” - a person capable of enjoying any form of sexual stimulation, including pain. A nobleman, Anafiel Delauney, recognizes her potential, buys her marque at age ten, and trains her as a courtesan and spy. She learns languages, politics, history, philosophy, and sexual skills. First in theory, and later in a kinky practice. I admit it's the first time I read the story told from point of view of an openly masochistic epic heroine :)

Even though the book contains explicit sex and the narrator is a courtesan, it’s important to note Phèdre has a choice and can choose her clients (consensuality is a sacred tenet in D'Angeline culture.) Of course, it’s more nuanced and layered - she does many things to help Anafiel Delauney gain knowledge, and we could spend hours here discussing the imbalance of power, but that would be pointless. Phèdre’s voice is strong from the start, and the cycle of tragedy, loss, and betrayal only strengthens it as the story progresses.

Kushiel Dart's plot contains many layers and strikes a perfect balance between political intrigue and Phedre’s deeply personal story. The book has many memorable characters, including the calculating and ruthless Melisande Shahrizai, whose intrigues and actions lead to Phedre being sold into slavery to the barbaric Skaldi. What happens next would spoil things for you, but it includes a conspiracy against Terre d’Ange.

A few words about the world-building - it’s spectacular! According to legend, Terre d’Ange was first settled by rebellious angels, including Naamah, the patroness of courtesans, whose profession has a religious layer. Carey builds her land’s history, mythology, and social structure with patience and subtle touch. Some readers will feel that it moves too slowly, but it’s always subjective. That said, bigger intrigue gains momentum after more or less 300 pages. There's very little magic, and what there is all comes from the religious mythos. But the story definitely has an epic scope and larger-than-life characters. 

What sets the book apart from many others is Carey’s talent for characterization and her focus on intimate moments and relationships. It barely mentions some battles but shows others in vivid detail. I loved how nuanced the people and places are in this story. The antagonists are fascinating and the arch-villainess is irresistible.

The book’s journey is dark and emotionally complicated and made all the better by clever pacing and Phèdre’s growth as a character. It plays with the woman-as-victim trope and explores the nature of strength and weakness, will and desire, cruelty and compassion. And that's what makes it great.

1 comments:

Snapdragon said...

I enjoy reading books with spies in them and I heard that this is a good fantasy.

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