What is Kushiel’s Dart About?
“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 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.”
“I read the rest of the book through that lens of conversation”
My relationship with Kushiel’s Dart by Jaqueline Carey is complex—which is probably fitting, because the book itself is complex. Let me try to explain myself. This may take a while, surprising no one who knows me.
I picked up this book at the behest of friends. Thomas Howard Riley suggested it, fellow Before We Go blogger Brianna Sinder speaks highly of it. I read it for the great folks at Fiction Fans Podcast so we could discuss it together. And when Brianna and Beth graciously invited me to be a contributor to Before We Go, I said yes and warned them that I would like to focus on smoochy stuff. So it seemed fitting that I would start with the rather infamous Kushiel’s Dart.
I think if it weren’t for the fact that all these people were waiting for me to finish it, I would have put it aside. I’m not sure I would have survived the first chapter, let alone all the many names that Carey needs us to remember to follow the story. But I stuck through it to the end, eventually shifting to the audiobook (my first completed audiobook!) to get through it in time to chat with my good friends Lilly and Sara.
And you know, I’m glad I stuck through. I’m glad I’ve read this book now.
Let’s start with the things I really loved. The world of Kushiel’s Dart is built on the premise that prostitution is akin to worshipping the gods; men and women are chosen by the gods to serve, it seems, and to sleep with them is to worship all that is good and beautiful in the world. At least, that’s how it starts; that’s what the main character Phèdre tells us. And of course, because it’s fantasy, Phèdre is *special*. She has been chosen by Kushiel, the God of Pain (I think?) and she derives sexual pleasure from pain, making her an extreme af bed partner.
This premise of sex as worship lasts all through the first chunk, while she is being groomed and taught everything she needs to know to become a servant of Naamah. But this assertion quickly falls apart the moment Phèdre begins entertaining clients. As soon as she hits the world, she is treated with such blatant disrespect and slut shaming that sometimes I needed to put down the book and catch my breath. At first, I thought it was a flaw, some massively inconsistent worldbuilding, but early on I had an epiphany. Maybe Carey was engaging with a conversation with SFF—and even society as a whole—about how we generally treat women. We will wax poetic about how much we love women, and then in the same breath reduce women to objects for men to fight over. Perhaps Carey has written a scathing indictment of a genre that has historically been unkind to women, relegating them to fair maidens who need rescuing, or whores who cannot be trusted, and cardboard cut-outs of humans who are there to be raped to show how bad (edgy?) the men are.
If you’re starting to get upset, take a breath. I swear I’m not judging. I’ve done it, too.
With that in mind, I read the rest of the book through that lens of conversation. And what Carey has accomplished with this book is stunning. It asks the reader what place sexuality and femininity have in SFF—and then, if you hesitate, it slaps you in the face with a wild fucking scene about cutting for sexual pleasure. This book oozes sexuality. That was unfortunate pun. Moving on! We belong, this book screams. We belong and you can’t get rid of us. The entire plot is arguably moved by women. Phèdre, our horny (and beautiful) heroin, Melisande, our devious (and beautiful) villain, and Ysandre, the queen (I don’t remember if the text calls her beautiful but it’s likely; everyone in this book is beautiful, which I’ll babble about later.) The book discards male characters in the rapid-fire sort of way that so much other SFF discards women, and I’m living for it. Carey has looked us in the eye and watches us squirm and demands to know why it’s different now that she’s doing it to men when dozens of writers before her have done it to women. I applaud her.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. I am highly aware of the fact that, with this book, Jacqueline Carey has blazed a trail that many of my friends and I are walking on as we explore the world of romantic fantasy, and what femininity looks like in SFF, and what sex brings to a story. I know Carey is not the only woman publishing in the early 00s. It’s to my chagrin that I haven’t read some of the powerhouses of the era. But I also know that some of my friends said that this was the FIRST book they read that had the plot driven entirely by women and that, my friends, is invaluable.
I’m going to shift now to the stuff that didn’t work for me, and this entirely boils down to the style of SFF Carey wrote.
Like I said at the beginning of this review (blog post?) I almost bounced at the first chapter in which we’re told repeatedly how incredibly beautiful Phèdre is, and I almost bounced again a few chapters later when it clicked with me that everyone we see is described as beautiful. It’s a very specific kind of beauty, too, one that’s graceful and dainty and delicate, and did I mention so very beautiful. And it’s not that I have anything against beauty per se so much as the limitations of the way Phèdre appreciates beauty gets so repetitive that it’s frustrating. It’s a symptom of a writing style that relies on a lot of telling and not much showing in all things and not just the beauty, which made it harder for me to connect to the world at large.
The most challenging for me, though, was how many names we need to remember. Kushiel’s Dart is very much a worldbuilder’s novel. Phèdre lives a relatively sheltered life for the first 500 pages (yeah that’s what I said, the FIRST 500 pages) and so when we need to learn about All The Politics™ we are taught these things through long pieces of internal exposition, where the narration takes an aside to catch us up. Except I never, ever felt caught up. I couldn’t remember who the political players were and then when I think I finally kinda started to remember their names, oops, they were dead, and then I was checking the Dramatis Personae to see who had just died and whether it was probably important. I really did like the characters we saw on the page (Alcuin was done DIRTY) but we didn’t get a lot from those characters because the narrative favours all those long asides over character interaction.
The sex, wild though it is, can be quite clinical in its description, and the explanation of how Phèdre experiences the pleasure-pain is quite repetitive. Actually the sex is pretty repetitive too, come to think of it. Phèdre gets whipped a lot. (She likes it! Promise! It’s not as traumatizing as it sounds!) But then when she sleeps with people who MATTER emotionally, we don’t get any details at all. It’s like the narrative uses up the sex budget early to tell us how shocking Phèdre’s sex life is, but then when I’m ::ahem:: shall we say “invested,” we don’t get to ::ahem:: feel the weight of those relationships. “Relationships.”
So did I enjoy this book? I don’t know. But that lack of enjoyment is more down to personal style, and considering SFF in the early 00s, I know Carey very much wrote to the style at the time whilst also shaking things up. In that, it’s successful at what it set out to do and I massively appreciate what Carey has done, and what she had to say. It’s an important book for anyone reading or writing romantic fantasy, I think. It’s a trailblazer.
Who should read this book? If you’re a fan of Robert Jordan and you aren’t easily shocked (or you want to be shocked) then I think Kushiel’s Dart is the book for you. I’m told the worldbuilding is a similar style as Jordan, who also writes big dense worlds. And in Kushiel’s Dart, all the spanking is consensual!
Read Kushiel’s Dart and the Phèdre’s Trilogy