Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Kushiel's Dart - Jacqueline Carey

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.

Book Details
Title: Kushiel's Dart
Author: Jacqueline Carey
Publisher: Tor
Pages: 912
Year: 2002
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 0-765-34298-7
First published: 2001


  1. I can't agree with you on the notion that the thing about sex and selling oneself for money is romanticised, it's simply because they have another view on the idea sex in Terre D'Ange than we do in our world. We may label Phedre and other courtesans as prostitutes but in this story they don't and that's what fantastic about fantasy, you can create a world where humans aren't bound by them same rules of propriety as we are.

  2. What I was aiming at is not so much the moral side of the issue, prostitution is a fact in human society, I don't think hiding it is going to change that or make the lives of those who work that trade any better.

    Phèdre's culture has a different perspective on what is socially acceptable regarding sex. That is something I can accept in a novel. I think she glosses over some of the practicalities a little too easily though.

    What Carey does, is create a religion that allows her to explain away most of the negative sides associated with prostitution, (or perhaps sex in general). There are no STDs, no unwanted pregnancies, strict religious taboos on rape and sexual violence, the D'Angeline beauty, so not an unattractive person in sight, and of course the social status accorded to a priest for the servants of Naamah. That sounds fairly ideal to me.

  3. I loved this book! I read it 10 years ago and JUST finished it for a second time (which the lapse between was just long enough to forget a lot of aspects, and be able to enjoy it anew)
    The "slow start" to Kushiel's dart was my favorite part when I read it at 20, and I found the second half of the book pale without all the sex and court-life of the first half. But now when I read it at 30 I see that the second part has its merits (although the Master of the Straits story still strikes me as super out of place), maybe because now I'm not so boy-crazy and can enjoy the adventure more.
    So far (as I'm in the middle of Kushiel's chosen) I haven't come across the reason of no pregnancies yet... It's really strange how absent children are from the story except for of course when Phedre was a child, again I notice it this time around as I've since become a mum!
    So you think I should skip the Imriel series and go right to Moirin? I hate to read books that are a waste of time.

  4. It's been a while since I read this but if I remember correctly a D'angeline woman has to light a candle to ... I think it was Eiseth, to "open the gate to her womb". So unless you pray for a child a woman doesn't conceive.

    The Moirin books to have a lot of references to events in the Imriel trilogy but it should be readable even if you do skip the second trilogy.

    The three trilogies each have their own character I guess. Imriel is a bit of a dark brooding character and he essentially remains that way. Personally I didn't think him as engaging as either Phedre or Moirin. I also had some serious issues with the plot of that trilogy.

    Moirin's trilogy stars off well but she approaches the D'angeline part of her heritage is a very different way than Phedre. I didn't think she was as darkly sensual as Phedre. Carey also zooms out in the extreme in Moirin's trilogy. She travels just about the entire world. Made the tale a bit unlikely for me.

    Either way I don't think Carey even quite reaches the level of the first trilogy in her later books. I wouldn't call them a waste of time but personally I feel she should have left it at that.