Kushiel’s Dart is the story of Phèdre, marked as a masochist by the angel of pain and punishment, and trained from youth as a courtesan and spy. The book follows her through her childhood and then the vicissitudes of one fateful year, in which Phèdre learns more about pain and love than she had ever dreamed possible. Tragedy strikes her comfortable life, and she is sold into slavery among the Skaldi (analogous to Vikings), and must use her talents and her wits to survive. The Skaldi plot to take over Phèdre’s home country of Terre d’Ange, and Phèdre is stunned by the fact that several nobles she knows are complicit in the plot. She escapes to warn her Queen, but finds herself assigned to a dangerous mission in Alba (Britain), which will further test her skills and her emotional strength. The climax comes with a battle scene as adrenaline-laced as the siege of Minas Tirith, and Kushiel’s Dart ends with the aftermath of that battle.
I don’t think I understood, until I finished the novel, how thoroughly Jacqueline Carey had woven the mingling of pleasure and pain into the story. The two are forever mingled in Phèdre’s life, but it goes far beyond the bedroom. Great victories are won, but we are never allowed to forget those who died to make it possible. Many fantasy novels focus on the triumphs of a handful of nobles while seeming to forget the commoner blood spilled to achieve the nobles’ goals. This is not one of them. War in Carey’s world is always a tragedy, no matter who wins, because there are good and bad people on all sides, and because the participants are made real to us instead of just pawns on the chessboard. Love, too, is a double-edged sword. What if you found the bravest, kindest, most loyal man you could possibly desire, but could never be satisfied with him because he could not satisfy your darkest proclivities? And what if you knew you would forever long for a cruel traitor who had the blood of your family on her hands, but who was the only one who truly understood your cravings? Love and pain are never far apart. By the end of the book, we’ve all been pricked by Kushiel’s dart.
Kushiel’s Dart is quite long; after a few Kushiel books, one comes to realize that each installment tends to have enough plot for three separate books! This seemed almost forbiddingly long to me on my first read, but it’s an aspect of Carey’s style that I’ve since become accustomed to, and at any rate the plot kept me riveted throughout. I highly recommend Kushiel’s Dart. It’s quite good and has afforded me a great deal of rereading pleasure over the years.
I read and enjoyed Kushiel’s Dart years ago after it won the Locus Award for Best First Novel and I’ve recently re-read it so that I can finish the series (I’ve read only the first trilogy) and move on to Ms. Carey’s newer books. This time I listened to Tantor Audio’s version, which was read by the incredibly talented Anne Flosnik.
The KUSHIEL series is set in an alternate Europe which is easily recognized by its geography, language, culture, religion, mythology, and politics (e.g., ancient Tiberium is ancient Rome, Alba is England, the Yeshuites are Christians, the Tsingani are gypsies, etc.). The greatest difference in this alternate Europe is the religion, for when Yeshua hung on the cross, his shed blood mingled with the Magdalene’s tears and produced Elua, who roamed the Earth in the company of the angel Naamah who supported him by working as a prostitute. Eventually he was accepted in Terre d’Ange (France), a passionate land upon whom he bestowed his beauty and whom he taught to “love as thou wilt.” And so they do, with little restraint and without any pesky hang-ups about heterosexuality or monogamy. In fact, men and women serve Naamah as sacred prostitutes in the Night Court.
Phèdre has been rejected by the Night Court because of the scarlet mote in her eye. But scholar Anafiel Delaunay recognizes the blemish (it’s Kushiel’s Dart) and what it symbolizes: Phèdre is the first anguissette born in decades — she finds sexual pleasure in pain, and the unique services she can provide will be highly valuable to certain unconventional patrons. Anafiel purchases, fosters, and trains Phèdre for his own unknown political machinations and hires Joscelin Verreuil, a warrior vowed to celibacy, to protect her. And so Phèdre serves Naamah and Anafiel by loving as she wilt (and wilting as she loves) and she and Joscelin are soon caught up in dangerous court intrigues.
It sounds kind of sleazy, with all the BDSM and the bastardized version of Christianity, but in Jacqueline Carey’s hands it isn’t sleazy — it’s decadent. Mostly what sets it apart is the writing style which is beautifully lush, and even more gorgeous when read by Anne Flosnik’s rich smooth voice in the audio version:
I was flawed… To be sure, it was my eyes; and not even the pair of them, but merely the one. Such a small thing on which to hang such a fate. Nothing more than a mote, a fleck, a mere speck of color. If it had been any other hue, perhaps, it would have been a different story. My eyes, when they settled, were that color the poets call bistre, a deep and lustrous darkness, like a forest pool under the shade of ancient oaks. Outside Terre d’Ange, perhaps, one might call it brown, but the language spoke outside our nation’s bounds is a pitiful thing when it comes to describing beauty. Bistre, then, rich and liquid-dark; save for the left eye, where in the iris that ringed the black pupil, a fleck of color shone… And it shone red, and indeed, red is a poor word for the color it shone. Scarlet, call it, or crimson; redder than a rooster’s wattles or the glazed apple in a pig’s mouth… Thus did I enter the world, with an ill-luck name and a pinprick of blood emblazoned in my gaze.
I should mention that one issue I had with the audio version is that many of the unfamiliar French-sounding names seemed similar when read aloud and it took me longer to distinguish all the characters than it did when I read them in print. It will help to be able to look at the Dramatis Personae in the front of the book if you listen to the audiobook. There is a map in the book also, but this isn’t necessary since the geography is an alternate Europe.
The plot is complex and the political maneuvering is intriguing, there’s plenty of adventure, and the characters are colorful. But my favorite thing about Kushiel’s Dart is Joscelin. He is one of the best male heroes in fantasy literature. Tall, strong, quiet, serious, courageous, deadly, and passionate, all he has to do is stand there wearing his mail gauntlets and steel vambraces and I’m completely entertained.