Thursday, June 14, 2018

Kushiel’s Dart

Jacqueline Carey
Completed 6/13/2018, Reviewed 6/14/2018
4 stars

I read this book because it is on the LGBTQ Resource Reading List at Worlds Without End.  It features gay and lesbian relationships, but it is not very heavily emphasized.  The book is really a sprawling tale of the politics and intrigue of an alternate middle ages predominantly set in a France-like country, told from the point of view of a high class courtesan who is the first in several generations to find pleasure in pain.  At first, I didn’t care for the politics.  There were way to many names and families.  In fact, the book begins with a listing of all the characters from all the houses.  That overwhelmed me for about the first three hundred or so pages.  Then the adventures began, which cut down on the politics and focused more on plot.  With over nine hundred pages, I thought I’d eventually be bored with it, but the intrigue kept me, well, intrigued.

The story revolves around Phedre, born with a red mote in her eye (Kushiel’s Dart of the title), abandoned at an early age to the Night Court to be trained in the ways of pleasure.  At a certain age, she discovers she equates pain with pleasure.  She is the first “anguissette” in a few generations and is sold to the House Delaunay, where she grows into her trade as well as being classically educated.  When Anafiel Delaunay decides she’s old enough to let her begin plying her trade, he commissions her to report back on any gossip of the kingdom.  She sort of becomes a spy as well as a courtesan, learning the ins and outs of the court of their land, Terre D’Ange (Land of the Angel).  One of court captures her and sells her into slavery to the “barbarians” of the north.  There she learns the truth about the person who betrayed her and the havoc that will be wreaked on the kingdom.  This is just the beginning of a journey that will test her courage and prove she is more than just courtesan. 

This is the first real sprawling book I’ve read in many an age.  At first, I was put off by the length and the politics.  I was afraid it was going to be a fantasy opera.  And it sort of is.  But the Phedre’s journey is quite thrilling.  Once she is captured, we learn more of her smarts and stamina.  One can say that this is the story of a prostitute with a heart of gold.  But it is much more than that.  It is phenomenal world building, complete with a continent’s worth of kingdoms and a well-constructed religion.  Their god, Elua, is an angel born of the blood of Jesus on the cross and Mary Magdelene’s tears.  Kushiel and others are Elua’s companions.  It is the basis for the whole of the society of Terre D’Ange. 

The character development is quite good.  It being such a long story, we get to know Phedre and quite a few other characters quite well.  Phedre is the narrator, so we learn of all the characters based on her relationships with them, sexual or not.  And yes, she uses sex as a weapon.  Though there were so many characters, you get to know many of them really well.  Although by the end of the book, my head was swimming a bit as some of them from the beginning of the book reappear. 

The prose is also quite lovely.  At first, I didn’t care for it, being of a rather old fashioned literary style.  Carey uses the phrases “of a sudden” and “of a surety” a few times, which normally grates on me like nails on a chalkboard.  As the book progressed, I found myself getting into the rhythm of the language and found it quite enjoyable.

As I mentioned earlier, the gay, lesbian, and bisexual elements are positive, though not in the forefront, just as sex is there and somewhat explicit at times.  The book was nominated for the Gaylactic Spectrum Award for positive representation of LGBT characters and issues.  But it is more about Phedre’s relationships than with sex itself, despite her being a courtesan. 

I give the book four out of five stars.  It is extremely well written, if not a little on the heavy-handed side with its literary style.  I found it intriguing and exciting and it held together despite its length.  The ending is a little long.  Not quite a cliffhanger, it is the setup for the next book in the series.  Though I won’t be reading the sequels, I do recommend this book. 

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