Okay, as I said before, I know I'm late to this party. Thirteen years late, to be exact. But better late than never, or so the saying goes.
Since all the recent/new SFF releases I've read since returning from the Middle East have more or less killed my reading pleasure, I wanted to try something different. Something tested and true. I had been meaning to read Jacqueline Carey's Kushiel books for years, so this seemed to be as good a time as any. Problem is, like many of you, I buy lots of books. Add to those all the review copies I receive and that makes for hundreds of works awaiting my attention. The shelves of my apartment are full of books. My locker is full of boxes of novels and I also have boxes and boxes full of them in storage elsewhere.
Try as I might, I was unable to locate the first trilogy. I had the two subsequent Kushiel series on hand, but there was no sign of the first one. When asked if I could jump into the story by reading the second series, Carey replied that it wouldn't work that well. And thanks to the author, she cobbled together a set of the first three installments that she sent my way. When I received the package containing a note telling me that she hoped I would enjoy the books, Kushiel's Dart immediately went to the top of my "books to read" pile.
And since Jacqueline Carey's debut ended up being the very best fantasy debut I have ever read, I felt quite stupid for waiting this long to read it. So if like me you haven't read Kushiel's Dart yet, you need to remedy that situation ASAP!
Here's the blurb:
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.
Jacqueline Carey's debut is fantasy on a grand scale. In terms of scope and vision, Kushiel's Dart is as impressive as Robert Jordan's The Eye of the World, George R. R. Martin's A Game of Thrones, and Steven Erikson's Gardens of the Moon. Time will tell if the rest of the trilogy and the subsequent series will show as much depth, but this first installment is a dense and complex novel that delivers on all fronts.
The worldbuilding is amazing. The backdrop for this tale isn't the traditional European medieval setting. It is more akin to the Renaissance era and it is set in an alternate version of Western Europe. Terre d'Ange occupies the territory which we know as France and was founded by Elua and his Companions, all of them fallen angels. Elua's motto was "Love as thou wilt." Which means that love and physical pleasure are important facets of D'Angeline society. Sexuality lies at the heart of this story, and service to the angel Naamah is one of the most important religious institutions of Terre d'Ange. Kushiel's Dart is a sprawling novel, more far-reaching than most fantasy debuts. Beyond the alternate France, other countries such as Britain, Ireland, Belgium, Italy, Spain, and Germany are explored or play a role as the tale progresses. Richly detailed and imagined in terms of cultures, religions, and politics, this is a textured and sophisticated novel that hits all the right buttons. The web of murder and political intrigue woven by the author is as impressive and unanticipated as the politicking of such masters as George R. R. Martin and Katherine Kurtz. Every revelation unveils yet more layers and Kushiel's Dart is almost impossible to put down.
I don't believe I have ever encountered such a well-written fantasy debut. Jacqueline Carey's write with an elegance that reminded me of Guy Gavriel Kay. Even the darkest and more shocking scenes are written with the same literary grace, making them even more powerful. The author's spellbinding prose creates an imagery filled with wonder and beauty that never fails to fascinate. Carey also possesses a human touch akin to that of Robin Hobb, which imbues certain sequences with even more emotional impact.
A woman who embraces her sexuality can be quite intimidating to men. Even more so, I reckon, to male SFF geeks. And Phèdre's disturbing sexuality (tinged with sadomasochism) most probably has something to do with the fact that Kushiel's Dart is not held with such high esteem as some of the boys' club favorites like Patrick Rothfuss's The Name of the Wind, Scott Lynch's The Lies of Locke Lamora, Joe Abercrombie's The Blade Itself, etc. Truth to tell, as a younger man I most likely wouldn't have ever gotten into Carey's debut. To understand and appreciate Phèdre's psyche and motivations, I do believe one must be part of a more mature audience. But it would be too easy to simply focus on the sexuality which permeates every aspect of this novel. Yes, sexuality lies at the heart of Kushiel's Dart, no question. But there is much more than that. Kushiel's Dart is a remarkable and intricately plotted story featuring an unforgettable cast of characters.
The novel features the first person narrative of Phèdre nó Delaunay. The problem with single-POV narrative structures is that if one doesn't like the main protagonist, then it's pretty much game over. Phèdre is a deeply flawed character. Yet her strengths and weaknesses make her genuine and her perspective, that of an older Phèdre relating the story of her past, misleads readers on numerous occasions by playing with their expectations. The supporting cast is comprised of various three-dimensional men and women, and in their own way, through their interactions with Phèdre, they add even more layers to an already multilayered plot. Although it is Phèdre's POV which gives the book its unique flavor, Kushiel's Dart would never have been such a memorable read without the presence of such characters as Anafiel Delaunay, Alcuin, Melisande Shahrizai, Hyacinthe, Joscelin Verreuil, and Waldemar Selig. And thankfully, à la Mark Lawrence, Robin Hobb, and L. E. Modessit, jr., Carey doesn't follow the path of least resistance and her characters remain true to themselves.
The structure of the novel follows the cover blurb for the most past. Kushiel's Dart begins with Phèdre's childhood and the years following her dedication to the service of Naamah. The second part focuses on the betrayal that will see Phèdre sold into slavery and its aftermath. The final part focuses on her attempt to save her homeland from certain ruin. This work is a doorstopper of a book, yet it's a veritable page-turner. There is not one dull moment to be found within its pages. If anything, I was disappointed when I reached the end because I couldn't believe it was already over. Fortunately, I have an additional eight volumes set in the same universe to read and enjoy! Being too dumb to read the novels as they were released means that I don't have to wait for them to be published, so that's that!
In a nutshell, Kushiel's Dart is a sophisticated and convoluted read full of wonder and sensuality. Written on an epic scale and with an elegance seldom seen in this subgenre, Jacqueline Carey's first novel is the best fantasy debut I have ever read. Yes, it is edgy and sexy. But it is also as complex, satisfying, and rewarding as any of the best works epic fantasy has to offer. Simply put, it's an awesome read!