The land of Terre d’Ange is a place of unsurpassing beauty and grace. It is said that angels found the land and saw it was good….and the ensuing race that rose from the seed of angels and men live by one simple rule: Love as thou wilt. Phèdre nó Delaunay is a young woman who was born with a scarlet mote in her left eye. Sold into indentured servitude as a child, her bond is purchased by Anafiel Delaunay, a nobleman with very a special mission….and the first one to recognize who and what she is: one pricked by Kushiel’s dart, chosen to forever experience pain and pleasure as one.
Phèdre is trained equally in the courtly arts and the talents of the bedchamber, but, above all, the ability to observe, remember, and analyze. Almost as talented a spy as she is courtesan, Phèdre stumbles upon a plot that threatens the very foundations of her homeland. Treachery sets her on her path; love and honor goad her further. And in the doing, it will take her to the edge of despair….and beyond.
Hateful friend, loving enemy, beloved assassin; they can all wear the same glittering mask in this world, and Phèdre will get but one chance to save all that she holds dear. Set in a world of cunning poets, deadly courtiers, heroic traitors, and a truly Machiavellian villainess, this is a novel of grandeur, luxuriance, sacrifice, betrayal, and deeply laid conspiracies. Not since Dune has there been an epic on the scale of Kushiel’s Dart, a massive tale about the violent death of an old age, and the birth of a new.
One of the first reviews you’ll see of this book on Goodreads makes much ado about the relative young age of those entering Naamah’s service (14, though most don’t seem to start actually serving until 15 or 16), and how some of the BDSM is a bit extreme for her taste and so on. As I got into this novel I was going to write this big impassioned defense of the world of which this book is set. There’s the fact that Naamah is not unlike Aphrodite: her priests and priestesses are courtesans, and to sleep with one is an act of worship. There’s the fact that consent is everywhere in this book, and that consent being taken away around the midpoint plays an important role. There’s a fact that none of the sexy is tawdry or exploitative. It is crystal clear when one patrol has crossed the line, and what constitutes that line and when Phèdre will allow her patron to tip toe up to it is very much a part of her coming to grips with what it means to bear Kushiel’s Dart and so forth.
But then I realized than I decided that if I did so, that it kind of misses the point.
For as much as sex and sexuality run as themes through this story, it is not a story about sex.
It is epic fantasy.
It is feminist, sex-positive epic fantasy told from a perspective that we just never see: the female outsider. Phèdre is no warrior. For all that she has been taught, she is no scholar nor trained diplomat. She is a courtesan, taught by her bond-holder (yes, she’s an indentured servant, but like so many before her has earned her freedom before the half-way mark of this book) to pay attention and to listen. She gathers information and passes it along to let him do with it as he pleases.
Until she can no longer be the outsider.
Until her bond-holder has been betrayed and killed and she has become an unwilling participant because it’s that or die. She survives because she is smart. She survives because she can use her knowledge of men (and one woman, actually) to do what must be done. There are a few occasions in this book where she uses her body to get what is needed. Male companions of hers question her decisions, but in a refreshing change from the norm, she does not feel guilt. She is a servant of Naamah. She has Kushiel’s Dart. They are part and parcel of who she is and if that is what it takes to to further their dire situation than so be it.
This is about a girl becoming a woman. It is a book about discovering what it means to serve your god – chosen freely (Naamah) or by her very nature (Kushiel) – and that is a discussion that isn’t limited to Phèdre, but also to her companion Joscelin – a guard in the service of Cassiel who in their quest to survive must break vows he swore never to break.
I actually really like the religion and world building here too. It’s a curious mix of the polytheism of the Greeks mixed with a bit of Christianity (Blessed Elua had 12 companions is all I’m saying) and the Yeshuites are clearly the Hebrews. The world is clearly European-based: Phèdre people feel like the French. We get mentions (in other names) of the Romans, the Spanish, the Celts, and the Vikings. It just shows that you these old constructs have plenty of life in them when enough care is paid to them.
And finally, I have to give Carey props because though this book is long (the paperback version is about 930 pages long, the Kindle version just over 1000) it doesn’t feel it nor outstay its welcome. So often I feel like books of these length (see Patrick Rothfuss’ Kingkiller Chronicles) need a trim, but this one doesn’t. The first half and the second half are distinct enough that they could have been cut into two books, but I’m glad they didn’t, because you need both halves to get that truly rewarding experience.
One consistent plea in fantasy is for more female-centric and female-written books. This book and this series are just that. Don’t let the basic concept behind the book turn you off, because you’ll be missing out on something truly special.
Verdict: Buy It