Kushiel’s Dart by Jacqueline Carey Review

Kushiel’s Dart is Jacqueline Carey’s highly successful debut and the first instalment of a trilogy that chronicles the exploits of Phèdre nó Delaunay – exquisite courtesan, talented spy and god-touched masochist. The book received the 2002 Locus Award for Best First Novel, and it established Carey as one of the new and innovative talents within the fantasy genre.

Kushiels Dart

*You can read a guest blog by Carey  and an interview with Jacqueline as well.

Kushiel’s Dart is first and foremost the story of Phèdre, who enters the world graced with an ill-luck name and a flaw in her beauty; a mote of scarlet in one of her dark eyes. She is sold into indentured service at a very young age, and when the enigmatic nobleman Anafiel Delaunay buys her service, he also names what the scarlet fleck in Phèdre’s gaze denotes: Kushiel’s Dart. Phédre is not merely an unlucky child of flawed beauty; she is an anguisette, chosen by the gods to experience pain and pleasure as one.

Reared in the Court of the Night-Blooming Flowers, an exclusive district of sacred prostitution, Phèdre enters the household of Delaunay at the age of ten, where she together with her foster-brother Alcuin is instructed in the arts of love and the skills of languages as well as the arts of covertcy. She and Alcuin are meant to serve as both courtesans and spies at the behest of their master, who is deeply embroiled in the political intrigues that surrounds the throne of Terre d’Ange.

Employed as a courtesan in order to spy on her high and mighty patrons, Phèdre stumbles upon a plot that threatens not only the throne of Terre d’Ange, but also the land and the people itself. Along with her bodyguard Joscelin, a celibate warrior-priest, Phèdre is betrayed into slavery among the barbarian and war-like Skaldi. Here, she must use all her talents, both of the bedchamber and of the intellect, in order to escape and warn her beloved country of an impending invasion and expose treachery hidden at the heart of the d’Angeline court.

Carey spins an elegant and exciting tale where the unravelling of deeply laid conspiracies is well-balanced with action and character development. Kushiel’s Dart is not only peopled with a truly wonderful heroine, but also with some great secondary characters: Joscelin, the one-man Cassiline fighting machine; Phèdre’s childhood friend, the irrepressible Tsingano Hyacinthe and last but not least Melisande Shahrizai, a beautiful and alluring noblewoman of Kushiel’s line, subtle and very dangerous.

Kushiel’s Dart is a first person narrative, which is one of the strengths of the novel since it provides the heroine with a compelling and persuasive voice, where Carey seamlessly blends the hindsight of an older and more mature Phèdre with the depiction of her youth and emotional development. Through the course of the story, the reader intimately follows her emotional development from an impetuous young girl revelling in her sensuality to a young woman who has to make difficult choices and endure loss and sorrow with dignity and compassion. The effect of the first person POV is one of strong psychological characterization in relation to Phèdre, but less so with other characters since every observation is filtered through Phèdre’s voice, which the reader is invited to identify with exclusively.

In many respects it is not Phèdre but Joscelin who undergoes the greatest change throughout the narrative as he develops from a rather arrogant and prudish boy with a tendency for the dramatic to a man that can accept both love and laughter as well as take responsibility for his actions and choices. His devotion to Phèdre puts him through a lot of trials and tribulations, but I must admit that I found him most engaging when he is posing as a Mendacant, a travelling story-teller since where the reader glimpses a wholly different side to him apart from his awesome fighting abilities and his rather melodramatic temper.

It is also a very beautifully written book. Carey manages to give the language a slightly archaic “feel” without belabouring the point. Rather, she cleverly uses interjections and carefully spaced repetitions that endow Phèdre’s narrative voice with the rhythms and cadences of a masterful story-teller:

As everyone knows, beauty is at its most poignant when the cold hand of Death holds poised to wither it imminently. Upon such fragile transience was the fame of Cereus House founded. One could see, still, in the Dowayne, the ghostly echo of the beauty that had blossomed in her heyday, as a pressed flower retains its form, brittle and frail, its essence fled. In the general course of things, when beauty passes, the flower bows its head upon the stem and fails. Sometimes, though, when the petals droop, a framework of tempered steel is revealed within.
Such a one was Miriam Bousceuvre, the Dowayne of Cereus House. Thin and fine as parchment was her skin, and her hair white with age, but her eyes, ah! She sat fixed in her chair, upright as a girl of seventeen, and her eyes were like gimlets, grey as steel.

As seen in the excerpt above, Carey’s prose is also littered with an abundance of sensual similes and metaphors, which gives the story a lush and visual “feel”, making it a pleasure to read.

Kushiel’s Dart is set in a world both familiar and strange. The European continent is the obvious reference point for Carey’s world-building as she mixes loans from many different cultures and historical epochs into a recognizable yet strange and fascinating world. Renaissance France, Celtic Britain and the Old Norse cultures of Scandinavia all serve as distinctive, individual threads that Carey weaves skilfully together into a tapestry of vivid beauty. As with all forms of alternate history/historical fantasy, the depth and resonance of Carey’s constructed world is to some degree dependant on the reader’s own horizon of knowledge. Her world-building doesn’t stop at the level of surface resemblance; she actually incorporates pieces of European history beneath the skin of the story for the discerning reader to discover. The use of place names is a good example since she often uses names loaned or constructed from actual history. Thus Alba is the ancient Celtic name for the British Isles, while Skaldia is named after a specific poetic tradition in Old Norse literature. For me, one of the pleasures of reading Carey’s Kushiel books is the pleasure of recognizing the historical roots of the different elements of Phèdre’s world.

One of the most original aspects of Kushiel’s Dart is the fact that Carey constructs a revisionist Judo-Christian theology as an integral part of the world-building. Inspired by Biblical books of Apocrypha as well as Jewish legend and folklore, Carey crafts a very interesting myth of creation for Phèdre’s homeland, Terre d’Ange (“Land of Angels”), centred on a deity (Elua) that symbolizes the marriage between earth and heaven and a race of men begotten by angels:

This is how I came to learn, then, dandled on a former adept’s knee, how Blessed Elua came to be; how when Yeshua ben Yosef hung dying upon the cross, a soldier of Tiberium pierced his side with the cruel steel of a spear-head. How ehen Yeshua was lowered, the women grieved, and the Magdelene most of all, letting down the ruddy gold torrent of her hair to clothe his still, naked figure. How the bitter salt tears of the Magdelene fell upon the soil ensanguined and moist with the shed blood of the Messiah.

And from this union the grieving Earth engendered her most precious son; Blessed Elua, most cherished of angels.

I listened with a child’s rapt fascination as Brother Louvel told us of the wandering of Elua. Abhorred by the Yeshuites as an abomination, reviled by the empire of Tiberium as the scion of its enemy, Elua wandered the earth, across vast deserts and wastelands. Scorned by the One God of whose son he was begotten, Elua trod with bare feet on the bosom of his mother Earth and wandered singing, and where he went, flowers bloomed in his footprints.

At last he came to Terre d’Ange, still unnamed, a rich and beautiful land where olives, grapes and melons grew, and lavender bloomed in fragrant clouds. And here the people welcomed him as he crossed the fields and answered him in song, opening their arms.

So Elua; so Terre d’Ange, land of my birth and my soul. For three-score years, Blessed Elua and those who followed him – Naamah, Anael, Azza, Shemhazai, Camael, Cassiel, Eisheth and Kushiel – made to dwell here. And each of the followed the Precept of Blessed Elua save Cassiel, that whcich my mother had quoted to the Dowayne: Love as thou wilt. So did Terre d’Ange come to be what it is, and the world to know of D’Angeline beauty, born in the bloodlines from the seed of Blessed Elua and those who followed him. Cassiel alone held steadfast to the commandment of the One God and abjured mortal love for the love of the divine; but his heart was moved by Elua, and he stayed always by his side like a brother.

Carey builds on Biblical apocrypha, particularly the stories of rebel angels who begets children on human women and who betrays divine secrets to the race of mankind. Her unique creation of Elua, child of the union of the chthonic with the celestial, allows her to explore the idea of love as the most powerful and important of divine attributes. The central tenet of D’Angeline religion is simple: Love as thou wilt. Consensuality is a scared tenet, wherefore rape is not just a crime in Terre d’Ange, but heresy! This idea also allows her to explore the different aspects of the sexual in an interesting manner. In Terre d’Ange, sexuality is an integral aspect of the divine, embodied in the goddess Naamah. Prostitution (the Service of Naamah) is an integral part of the religious system, and the act of love itself is seen as a form of prayer. As institutions of sacred prostitution, the Thirteen Houses of the Night Court highlights different aspects of sexual love; joy, passion, solace, etc. Since her heroine is consecrated as a Servant of Naamah, Carey has included a few graphic sex scenes in her novel, but they are quite tastefully done and always integral to the plot.

Through Phèdre, Carey explores different forms of love; the love between siblings and friends, the love for the mentor, tinged with romantic love, sexual and romantic love, etc. One form, however, predominates, namely the love of country – an aspect that is curiously enough often is overlooked in the reception of Carey’s work. The people of Terre d’Ange are bound to their home by both love and blood as they are the descendants of their own deities, Elua and his angelic companions. Carey highlights this love of country to a discreet and lyrical effect by way of a repeated catch-phrase: The bee is in the lavender /The honey fills the comb, a verse from “The Exile’s Lament”, a fictional piece of D’Angeline poetry.

Another original aspect of Kushiel’s Dart is Carey’s decision to feature an openly masochistic heroine. Carey has pointed out that one of her aims with the novel was to highlight and subvert some of the sexist clichés inherent in not only the fantasy genre, but in popular culture at large. By making Phèdre’s sexual nature play such a prominent part in the story, Carey is able to tap into both the subtext of eroticized violence as well as the time-worn trope of the-woman-as-victim, inverting these aspects in order to explore questions of strength and weakness, cruelty and compassion and the ways that power can play out between individuals. All of these aspects are in one way or another present in the complex relationship between Phèdre and the villain Melisande:

The edge between love and hate is honed finer than the keenest flechette. She told me something like that, once, but I dared not think on such things, with her name so close to my tongue. She told me too that it was not my acquiescence that interested her, but my rebellion. That was the thing that set her apart from the others, who failed to see where it lay.

That was the thing that terrified me.

Well, then; if I could not free myself from her sway, I could do that much. I ran one finger under the velvet lead tied about my throat, considering the horizon. Melisande Shahrizai wanted to see how far I would run with her line upon me, how far my rebellion would take me. I do not think she reckoned on it taking me to the green and distant shores of Alba. Elua willing, it might even lead to the unravelling of her subtle and deep-laid plans.

So I prayed, facing the forbidding seas. And if I were to die on these deadly waters, I prayed my last thought wouldn’t be of her.

Though somehow I feared it would.

Theirs is a relationship of dominance and submission, of coercion and resistance as well as an almost compulsive attraction. As an anguisette, Phèdre is not only the victim of Kushiel’s harsh love; she is also his weapon, cast against the subtle machinations of Melisande Shahrizai, scion of Kushiel’s bloodline. Phèdre pitches her wit and will against her opponent, but at the same time her very nature makes her vulnerable to Melisande. In a way, they are perfectly matched, Phèdre’s masochism to Melisande’s sadism, but what I find so interesting about that relationship is the fact that Phèdre, despite her god-touched nature, is able to walk her own path and that she struggles to do so.

All in all, I find that Jacqueline Carey’s first novel is a wonderful and almost hypnotic reading experience. It is, as said, a beautifully written and well constructed story, and I haven’t found much to criticize. However, it does feel like Kushiel’s Dart is two books pressed into one volume. The first part of the book can perhaps best be characterized as a coming-of-age tale where Phèdre’s education and political intrigue plays the dominant part, while the second part of the book is more like a classic quest-narrative developing into a travelogue as Phèdre and Joscelin struggles to escape slavery in Skaldia and later travels on to the isle of Alba. This is, however, a minor criticism of a most impressive debut. Phèdre and her world made a huge impact on me when I first read Kushiel’s Dart and it continues to exert its influence on my imagination. Carey manages to explore some very interesting issues about love, in all its form, as an attribute of the divine, about suffering and compassion as well as will and desire in the power plays that people engages in. She offers up an exciting story with a compelling heroine that also has something to say about the human condition that transcends genre.

originally published 6-1-2008