Kushiel's Dart

Jacqueline Carey
Kushiel's Dart Cover

Unrequited Love is Key to Keeping Fans

Stella Atrium

I recently read Kushiel's Dart by Jacqueline Carey over several days – that's one long story. I was completely enamored with the well-drawn characters and descriptions of Europe before the 100 Year's War. The politics for a game of thrones in tangent kingdoms were intricate and multi-various.

I admired the level of diction using Old French, Old German and Celtic, and the writer's many stories taken from the myths of several religions. Plot keeps the reader engaged, so I thoroughly enjoyed the later surprise about Master of the Straits (I won't give it away here).

I was crazy for the writer's courage to kill her main character in the middle and turn the reader's attention (as well as the narrator's) to more than one focus for a potential 'chosen' lover. The pantheon of characters was easy to follow, and several women characters took prominent roles. The writing style found a rhythm that was comfortable and measured, leading the reader into delight of strange words from many languages.

I even started to compare the work to my own writing and felt I was second-rate.

So I decided to find some fans of Jacqueline Carey, and looked around at the many websites developed to keep the fantasy alive and maybe start some group role-playing adventures using character names and the milieu of the story (similar to the old game of claiming a character from Jane Austen as your muse).

Fan sites for Jacqueline Carey's characters are often highly developed. I was green with jealousy.

I was shocked to find, though, that few fan sites provided a map of the territory or artist depictions of the weapons used by Jocelin or the many warriors with well-described fighting styles. Artist depictions of The Master of the Straits don't show up anywhere!

Rather, fan pages focused on scrolled fonts and provided wallpaper, and images of women with tattoos on their backs. Some showed famous actresses with (added) tattoos or smoldering looks under mussed hair. Kushiel's Dart was narrated by a courtesan in a discipline of yielding, and the heroine (along with many others) decorated her body with a 'marque' or back tattoo that designates her status as indentured or free.

But what about the great writing, plotting, sense of history, shared languages, old myths, and plot surprises?

I guess I'm an old fart. I enjoyed the aesthetic qualities of the writing style. Fans looked more to the fantasy of a dominant male and yielding lover who tolerates pain.

Oh, jeez…

How do we apply this revelation to our search for loyal fans? Online advisers for self-publishers encourage us to find our 'fan base' and go to where they congregate for promotions. But who and where are they?

I read A Canticle of Lebowitz at age 18 and was swept away. Today I cannot find the appeal in the story. Like Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse, the Lebowitz story must be read at a certain age to display its magic. A reader must devour The Once and Future King before age 14, for example, or miss that opportunity to be enthralled with experiencing the world as a fish or a bird.

I read the The Shadow of the Torturer by Gene Wolfe at age 35 and read everything else he wrote within a year. Now the books on my shelf look like ashes of a bygone era.

For those of you who haven't explored the canon for the fantasy genre, a likely comparison is the Shrek movies that are cartoons about cartoon characters with slapstick humor and fart jokes – beloved by children everywhere. But the movies include in-jokes and adult references (that hopefully get past the kids) such as Pinocchio's ability to make wood. The parents who took the kids to the movies also had a good time.

I love Shrek for breaking the mold of fainting princess and providing work for Fiona and her mother, along with the shrinking violet princess characters -- compared to Disney's cartoon for Beauty and the Beast that remains so stilted, I cannot sit through the full hour of its run-time.

But Shrek suffers from the same problem of all trilogies. When Shrek and Fiona are wed and start making babies, the sexual tension flows away. The introduction of Artie and the need to bring a new Prince Charming to FarFarAway revives the interest of young viewers, but not so much the parents.

Sexual tension keeps the fan engaged. You can write that in stone.

For the TV viewer, now that Bones and Booth are wed with a baby in diapers, where do we find the titillation that kept us engaged for six seasons?

For the fan of Old Hollywood, the tension between Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall that made To Have and Have Not a box office hit was largely settled by the time Key Largo was shot four years later when they were an old married couple.

Are you still following the thread here? When I finished Kushiel's Dart the 'couple' who leave the newly wedded king and queen to retire on a country estate don't wed and make babies. The warrior sworn to her protection makes excuses that he cannot be her lover and her protector, choosing the latter to define his life.

I found the ending so unsatisfying because of the lack of resolution. But the lead character is a courtesan and barely eighteen. If she settles in, sexual tension flows away and there's no need for a sequel (of which there are twelve).

Here we find the real problem of women as heroes. A female hero succeeds when she finds a protector while she goes about producing the next generation. A guy hero succeeds when he rides off into the sunset to the next adventure.

No matter how well written for style, scholarship, pacing, plot, or level of diction – the fans of our stories ride along on a fantasy that resides in the hero's (or heroine's) unrequited love.

It's the story of unrequited love that captures the fans.