Kushiel's Dart

Jacqueline Carey
Kushiel's Dart Cover

Kushiel's Dart


I have to give it to Tor, their whole free ebook club thing was pretty amazing (it's currently on hiatus, set to return next year). You'd get a free book every month and they'd host discussions around it. Make no mistake, there are some real classics in there while also featuring new authors. My greatest upset is that I didn't really start paying attention to this until it was well under way, so I did lose out on some books I was definitely interested in (like Elizabeth Bear's Range of Ghosts, which I've yet to see pop up in the Kindle 99p sale).

Kushiel's Dart is a book that gets recommended on r/fantasy relatively frequently, under a whole array of genres: it's actually relatively low-magic, with a few exceptions; you won't get dragons in this one, but you will the scions of gods (Jesus is treated as an actual person who was indeed the son of God and he had his own son, Elua), you'll get visions (what the Tsingano/Roma people call the dromonde) and you'll get mythical rulers of the sea. The story follows one Phèdre nó Delaunay, courtesan and spy, born to one of the Night Court and raised in bondage and servitude. Until Anafiel Delaunay sees her for what she truly is: one touched by Kushiel's Dart, an anguisette destined to "experience pain and pleasure as one" (just a fancy way of saying she's a masochist, really). He buys her bondage from Cereus House and proceeds to train her into the art of courtly espionage, romance and seduction, as well as a whole host of different languages. For Deluanay has a much bigger plan at stake and Phèdre is a key component in it.

You'd be forgiven for thinking this dissolves into some ridiculous BDSM kink-o-rama, the plot-what-plot type of book that is quite frequent in the erotica genre. You'd be very wrong, however. Because what Carey does (and she does exceedingly well) is manage to balance a sexy romp with a very interesting fantasy of manners, definitely epic in scope. Phèdre's story is one of love (as Elua's guidance is Love as thou wilt), but it is also tied in with the story of a kingdom and the machinations of the gods. Carey uses early medieval Western Europe as her setting, with Terre D'Ange as France, Skaldia as Germany, Ceardicca Unitas and La Serenissima as Italy and Alba as England/Scotland, with Eire thrown in as well (though fiercely proud and independent). There is enough overlap that the world seems familiar, but its twists and turns and mythology is different enough that I still call this comfortably a fantasy novel.

It also happens to clock in at 900 pages and like Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell it's the kind of book that as a reader you're either really into or you find the slow pace (certainly for the first 25% of the book at least) to be boring and you ditch it. However, I loved Clarke's novel, so to me, the whole scene-setting, the early information dumps you get as Phèdre learns more and more about the scions of Elua, that's all actually quite interesting. There are a lot of names to keep track of and although the book handily provides a list at the start, I was reading this on Kindle, which made it all way too unwieldy. If anyone has found a way of doing this without wanting to destroy their Kindle in sheer frustration, drop me a line, because I could seriously use the advice!

For the most part, the sex scenes are interesting and some are quite hot, but without going into the kind of detail that you'd see in actual erotica. As it's all told from Phèdre's point of view, it goes into some detail, enough to entice and still leave more for the imagination. But really, this isn't a book just about sex (one criticism I do have is that there are some moments in the latter half of the book where conflicts seem to be solved less through diplomacy and more through Phèdre's magical vagina), it's one about politics and a realm in danger. There is a truly Machiavellian villain and one that knows how to bend Phèdre to her will. There are epic battles, barbarian invasions and double-crossings; for all the lulls in the series, the talking and planning, Carey is able to carefully balance that with an interesting story still.

I did enjoy this and I enjoyed the world she creates: the mythology and the gods, the way they still touch the lives of their mortal children without getting involved in their petty squabbles. I liked the characters, their varied moralities and lives. Most of all, I liked how everything is set up for something bigger, something grander. Behind what seems to be an easy conspiracy is an even bigger one, something that threatens the throne of Terre D'Ange. Needless to say, I raced to Amazon to buy the sequel, so thanks Tor, I needed some doorstops to see me through the rest of the year...

Overall, I did think that Kushiel's Dart could have been pared down in places, that the starting couple of hundred pages are slow to get going (and I can definitely see why people would give up on the book at that point) and that sometimes, Phèdre does have an uncanny way of getting herself out of tricky situations (mostly through Naamah's art i.e. fucking someone). Still, I did enjoy something that's heavier on the characters/politicking side of things than the straight up, sword-to-the-face, dragons-in-my-repertoire kind of fantasy (and I'm not knocking the latter kind, mind you, it's an observation more than anything else). It's refreshing to read fantasy that is so queer- and kink-positive (the D'Angelines are all pretty much bisexual, though some lean more one way than another) and courtesans are highly revered (for love of Elua, Naamah bedded both royalty and the lowest of the low). It's nice to have a book where female sexuality is not only highly regarded, but where rape is a crime (well, in Terre D'Ange it is) and where kink is something that people don't hide away; indeed two of the thirteen great Houses are dedicated to the SM in BDSM and Phèdre being an anguisette is a big deal in the book.

Do I recommend Kushiel's Dart? I do. It's a different kind of fantasy tale, but nevertheless a welcome one in the canon. I really hope more people pick this one up! As for Tor's ebook club, I really can't wait to see it make a comeback.