Kushiel's Dart is the first novel in the Kushiel's Legacy trilogy. This novel is the basis for a successfully series, the ninth book set in this universe is expected this summer. Personally, I feel the series fades a bit in later books, the second trilogy, based on a different main character than Kushiel's Legacy, is not nearly as strong as the earlier books. With the third trilogy, bases on main character Moirin and set some generations after the first two trilogies, Carey seems to have breathed some new life in the series. I rather liked Naamah's Kiss. I have no idea if Carey means to continue the series, although the final book in Moirin's trilogy has been delivered, she hasn't mentioned what her next project will be be yet. But let's get back on topic.
This first novel in the series takes us to the land of Terre d'Ange, a nation founded by rebellious angels, creating a people of unsurpassed beauty. They live by one commandment: love as thou wilt. At the beginning of the story we are introduced to Phèdre, who at the tender age of four, is sold into servitude to House Cereus, one of the houses of the Court of Night-Blooming Flowers. Phèdre's beauty is flawed by a small red mote in her eye, she does not meet the standards to become an adept in the House of Cereus. This means she will have to earn her marque, pay off the debt incurred by raising and educating her. The red mote may be a flaw in her beauty, Anafiel Delaunay sees a mark of the angel Kushiel, one of the founders of Terre d'Ange, in it. He immediately guesses Phèdre's potential and buys her marque from House Cereus. At the age of ten, Phèdre moves to his household to begin her training in earnest.
During her time in the Delaunay household Phèdre is taught many things. Languages and history, the art of a spy but also the arts of Naamah, in which Phèdre develops a curious taste. It appears that she is one of the few people capable of experiencing pleasure through pain. Her talent, Delaunay knows, will make her one of the most desired courtesans of her generation. He keeps his pupil carefully in the dark about his true motives but once Phèdre is introduced to high society and start earning her marque, it quickly becomes clear Delaunay is deeply involved in court intrigues. With an ageing king on the throne and succession by no means assured, it is a dangerous activity. When one of the other players makes a bold move, Phèdre's world is turned upside down and she needs every bit of knowledge Delaunay to survive.
What makes Kushiel's Dart an interesting novel is the mix of alternative history, romance, fantasy and spirituality Carey uses to tell the story. Phèdre's tale is quite romanticized and that is something the reader will have to get used to. Carey covers it in pretty phrases such as Night-Blooming flowers, servant of Naamah and a number of others, but when you get right down to it, Phèdre is a prostitute. There's quite a lot of sex in this novel and some of it is quite explicit. D'Angelines take the commandment 'love as thou wilt' serious and do indeed do just about everything two consenting adults can engage in. There are no labels such as straight or homosexual, just preferences and a wide variety is generally accepted. On the one hand I very much appreciate this acceptance of a variety of sexual practices, on the other hand there is not a trace of the problems sex can cause. No unwanted pregnancies (Carey has a supernatural solution for that), no sexually transmitted disease and little jealousy or prejudice (among the D'Angelines anyway). A little piece of heaven on earth, but then, the nation was founded by angels.
The nation of Terre D'Ange is clearly modelled on France. The map in the front of the book shows us a somewhat simplified western Europe. I mentioned this story containing elements of alternative history but maybe that is a bit too strong a statement. There doesn't seem to be a single point of divergence for one thing. Terre D'Ange's neighbours are echoes of various cultures that once existed across Europe. On the Italian peninsula a number of city-states reminiscent of the Renaissance period exist, still hanging on to the analogue for the Roman Empire that is mentioned in the book. To the east of Terre D'Ange is the vast realm of the Skaldi tribes, clearly based on Norse/Germanic culture. On the British isles we find a Celtic-like culture that developed in isolation in recent centuries. Apparently there was no migration period after the fall of Tiberium (Rome), or at least not as bad as the one in our world. To a point, these cultures are a bit stereotypical, something that will will plague the series in later books, but I have to admit they are comfortably recognizable and well realized.
Carey created a uniquely spiritual atmosphere in her novels. Phèdre is tied to two angels in particular. Kushiel, in Judeo-Christian mythology one of the seven angels of punishment, and Naamah, an angel or demon associated with prostitution. The author worked these two and a number of other angels and demons into the tale, connecting them to the figure of Elua, earth begotten son of Yesua Ben Yosef (Jesus). In a way, Phèdre embodies both the stern, forbidding punisher of the One God Kushiel as well as the warm, accepting and sexual Naamah. Given their contrasting personalities, it isn't an easy burden to carry, something Carey will cover in more detail in Kushiel's Chosen and Kushiel's Avatar. The angels shape Phèdre's character. Although absent as characters themselves, they are as much a driving force in the story as the plotting for the throne done by mortals.
The writing style Carey adopts is very rich in descriptions. She uses a lot of old fashioned forms, giving the text a slightly archaic quality. For a second language reader that is a bit of a challenge but it does add to the atmosphere of the entire novel. The tale is told entirely form Phèdre's point of view, in the first person. The language Carey uses also reinforces the feeling that Phèdre received a good education and is used to move in the higher circles of society. The language will change slightly in later books. Carey grows fond of phrases like "Mayhap" and "'Tis" in later books for instance. It's not as noticeable when you read them in order of publication but I did notice when rereading this first novel. She has also become a bit more concise. Kushiel's Dart takes a while to get going, resulting in a 900 page novel. Personally the slow start didn't bother me but it is a much heard bit of criticism directed at this book. So for readers who grew impatient with this book, subsequent novels will take off a bit faster.
You can only read a novel for the first time once, and that truly is a unique experience. I loved this book during my first read for the historical parallels in particular, after a reread I am slightly less enthusiastic. Not so much because of the novel itself but because I can see the seeds of a number of developments that will make later books less than satisfactory reads. That, of course, is not a fair bit of criticism to direct at this book. Kushiel's Dart remains a remarkable début. It's a book that carries a dark sensuality that will appeal to many readers. It combines elements of romance with a truly epic struggle for succession, complete with betrayal, heroism and tragedy. It's very easy to be swept away by Carey's tale and that is probably the best way to approach this book. Immerse yourself in Carey's world and you're in for quite a ride.
Title: Kushiel's Dart
Author: Jacqueline Carey
Format: Mass Market Paperback
First published: 2001