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Review: Kushiel’s Dart


Kushiel's Dart
Kushiel’s Dart by Jacqueline Carey
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Labeling this book as fantasy doesn’t feel quite right. The setting is an alternative Europe, with a different take on Christianity. In this setting Jesus, erm, I mean Yeshua, had a child born by Magdalene from his blood, Elua. Said Elua was rejected by God, and travelled all over the world with his companions to find a home. They eventually ended up in France. Or Terre D’Ange as it’s called in Kushiel’s Dart.

The main protagonist of Kushiel’s Dart is Phedre, a girl sold off to one of the Thirteen Houses as a child. The Thirteen Houses are basically sophisticated whorehouses where courtesans ply their trade. Phedre cannot officially join the house as she has a red speck in her eye, apparently marked by the devil. But she gets bought by a nobleman who calls the red mote Kushiel’s Dart, which marks her as ‘anguissette’, a woman who enjoys pain. Delaunay, the nobleman, trains Phedre to be a courtesan spy, and in the course of the book, Phedre travels across Europe in service for her country, to stop the invasion of her homeland, etc.

Yeah, kinda hard to explain this book. It’s beautifully written, no doubt, and I love the setting. Just like in The Lies of Locke Lamora, the heart of the story are politics and intrigues, backstabbing and surprising turns. It’s a huge book, and there’s a lot of stuff going on. I can’t wait to read the next book in the trilogy. But…

It would have been five stars if it wasn’t for the stupid BDSM angle of the book. The setting is fantastic, and it makes perfect sense that courtesans and whores make fantastic spies. I can even follow the ridiculous notion to make her an ambassador. But why the whole anguissette angle? Even without the vivid descriptions of her loving the paddle, the knives and the whips, it would have been a great story. It added absolutely nothing for me. Nothing whatsoever. Leaving that out wouldn’t have changed the book at all. So, dunno. Or maybe I am just a sissy who likes vanilla sex.

Bonus points for the gay stuff. Phedre sleeps with any gender, and there’s a gay love story at the heart of it all. Also, Melisande made a fascinating villain.

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  1. Just read this and I can’t quite decide what I think. It’s a good book, well written, nice worldbuilding, good characters. I even (kind of) buy how Terre D’Ange is a national of elf like angel-descended beautiful sex kittens whose worse excesses are consensual BDSM and political infighting. The sex scenes are fairly well written and not totally gratuitous. But the book makes me feel uncomfortably as though I’m playing through someone else’s sex fantasy. Phedre may also have the weirdest special ability in fantasy, so it’s quite impressive that the plot hangs so well around it.

    It reminds me of when I was writing for In Nomine and one of my friends (who is a good writer) wrote some fanfic about the Angel of BDSM whose special ability was for his servitors to automatically know when a partner wanted them to do something in bed. They also had special manacles that unlocked when the sub wanted them to, even if they didn’t consciously know it. It’s weird — until you realise that the author is projecting.

    So the flaws in this book are where the background, setting, and plot doesn’t quite make sense with the super courtesan angle. Like, if there are 13 sizeable houses of upper class prostitutes in this city, how many wealthy patrons actually exist to pay for them all regularly? I can see it’s based on Geisha culture but that’s a lot of sex workers. In a fancy place like Terre D’Ange, maybe there is some magical contraceptive they all can take to keep from getting pregnant, but when Phedre is exiled into barbarian lands, what does she do then?

    I’m being too practical I guess, this is a very female sex fantasy (where her power is in her seductiveness, her smarts, and her ability to manipulate people rather than by fighting) in a beautifully defined setting. I liked it but … I think I’d have gone with 4/5 also. I also noticed that all Phedre’s friends are men, and ofc she ends up sleeping with them all. She has female enemies or employers but no friends or family who are women. I wonder if that changes in the next two books.

    • You know, you bring up good points. That is a whole lot of sex workers. I didn’t give much thought to the pregnancy issue and assumed that general health information about STDs and pregnancies happened off-camera. At least I hope so. House courtesans obviously can get pregnant, as Phedre’s mother was of a house as well.

      There weren’t a lot of very believable female characters around. There’s Super-Phedre and Melisande, and everyone else is just not really fleshed out. The red-head of the twins reminded me of Merida, heh. Only with more sex and more chariot-driving instead of archery. Who knows, maybe this will change in the next books.

      I hear the rest of the books are good, so Kushiel’s Chosen is on my to-read list next. I’ll post my review, as usual. 🙂

  2. I read these a while ago, and quite liked them. There are a couple of stronger female characters in the next two books, but I do think Carey is a little bit better at fashioning unique male characters.

    What I really like about Carey is that she is very good at this “lyrical religious mysticism” which is pretty rare in fantasy. It’s a very strong aspect of Book 3. It reminds me a bit of Guy Gavriel Kay’s work. As well, I really like her alternate history.

    You might actually like Guy Gavriel Kay. He’s very much like Carey, only without the sex and BDSM. Start with his first books, the Fionivar Tapestry.

    • I read the Fionavar Tapestry many many years ago, and at the time really didn’t like it at all. It felt melodramatic to me, and not in a good way. I have heard that his other works like The Lions of al-Rassan are better, so it’s on my pile of books to read. But for now, I am starting Kushiel’s Chosen today. Looking forward to getting back to Terre D’Ange. 🙂

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