Continuing on with my reviews of classics of fantasy literature, I’m turning my attention to the Kushiel series of books by Jacqueline Carey. The books, which were published throughout the 2000s and 2010s, have a (well-earned) reputation for managing to really do something new and exciting within the genre of epic fantasy. Combining elements of historical fiction, epic fantasy, and erotica, the series of books explores various issues related to politics, power, and desire.
Young woman Phédre is marked by a red mote in her eye known as Kushiel’s Dart, a sign that she is blessed (or cursed) to feel pain as pleasure. Sold into a form of indentured servitude by her impoverished parents, she eventually enters the sevice of the noble Delaunay, she quickly becomes adept in the art of politics and the bedchamber. Betrayed by the clever and cruel noblewoman Melisande, Phedre finds herself among the barbarian Skaldi and must use all of her resources–emotional, sexual, intellectual–to save her homeland and everything she holds dear from the relentless tide of invasion.
The world that Carey has created is as rich and textured as our own, and this often gives the novel the feeling of a historical novel as much as it is a fantasy one. This world has a history similar to ours, with a powerful empire that once ruled much of this world’s Europe, though here it is called Tiberium rather than Rome. Phèdre and her friends and loved ones live in a France-esque country called Terre ‘Dange, a land populated by the descendants of the demigod Elua and his companion angels. As our heroine journeys to various spots on the map, Carey immerses us in these worlds; even the barbarian Skaldi, who want to conquer the land of Terre d’Ange are painted in thoroughly human colours.
The plot is also very textured, sometimes to such an extent that it can be difficult to tell exactly what’s going on. To some degree, of course, this is a reflection of the Machiavellian intentions of the various characters, particularly Delaunay and Melisande; while the former wants to preserve the rule of the current royal house, the latter wants to seize the throne for herself. Each plays a
For all of its texture and length (this is epic fantasy, after all), the plot still moves at a lightning pace, moving us through the various pieces of the puzzle at top speed while also periodically slowing down to focus on the human aspect of the story. This allows Carey to explore the heights of triumph and the absolute depths of despair, and there are no characters in the book that are either completely evil or completely good. Even Melisande, the books ruthless villainess, is not entirely evil, and it is the magnificent complexity of her character (and Phèdre’s fraught relationship with her) that stands as one of the novel’s most important threads and, I would argue, its thematic and emotional center.
In terms of style, Jacqueline Carey has a tremendous command of language. There are only a handful of writers I can think of who manage to capture the sensuous and the erotic in a way that doesn’t come across as trite and cliche. The closest comparison I can think of is Anne Rice, who was also able to combine the historical and the fantastical through rich prose and imaginative world-building. And, like Rice, this book manages to straddle the line between hardcore and narrative fiction, and this gives the book a sensuous frisson that is unlike almost anything else that I’ve read. Thus, while there are very (sometimes very graphic) descriptions of sex, they are key to the plot rather than titillating in and of themselves.
Kushiel’s Dart is one of those very few novels that I’ve actually read more than once. It’s truly intoxicating in all of the best ways, immersing us in a world that lives and breathes, filled with all of the complexity and ambiguity of everyday life. Indeed, it stands as one of the primary inspirations for our own series, and while we cannot hope to achieve the heights of Carey’s own magnificent books, we hope we can at least come close.
Stay tuned for our review of the sequel, Kushiel’s Chosen!