This review comes late, I know. Several years late, to be honest. As I mentioned in my review of Kushiel's Dart, I felt pretty dumb to have waited for over a decade to finally give this series a shot. Especially given the fact that Jacqueline Carey's debut ended up being the very best fantasy debut I have ever read. And with the second installment being nearly as good as the first volume, I can confirm that this trilogy deserves the highest possible recommendation!
Indeed, taken together, Kushiel's Dart and Kushiel's Chosen are the best two-punch combination to ever mark the beginning of a fantasy series. Yes, better than Steven Erikson's Gardens of the Moon and Deadhouse Gates, better than Robert Jordan's The Eye of the World and The Great Hunt, better than Robin Hobb's Assassin's Apprentice and Royal Assassin, and yes, even better than George R. R. Martin's A Game of Thrones and A Clash of Kings. And to the newer generation of SFF readers who mocked my review of Kushiel's Dart on Reddit last summer, claiming that it couldn't possibly be that good, it is better and more ambitious that the first two novels written by such talented authors as Patrick Rothfuss, Scott Lynch, Joe Abercrombie, and Brandon Sanderson. It is that and more. A lot more!
As an avid reader, 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 couldn't find Carey's first series last summer. And thanks to the author, she cobbled together a set of the first three installments that she sent my way so I could review them. Having now read two of them, I can't thank her enough for doing this, for it's been a long time since I've read such extraordinary fantasy works.
Here's the blurb:
The land of Terre d'Ange is a place of unsurpassed beauty and grace. The inhabiting race rose from the seed of angels and men, and they live by one simple rule: Love as thou wilt. Phèdre nó Delaunay was sold into indentured servitude as a child. Her bond was purchased by a nobleman, the first to recognize that she is one pricked by Kushiel's Dart, chosen to forever experience pain and pleasure as one. He trained Phèdre in the courtly arts and the talents of the bedchamber--and, above all, the ability to observe, remember, and analyze. When she stumbled upon a plot that threatened the very foundations of her homeland, she gave up almost everything she held dear to save it. She survived, and lived to have others tell her story, and if they embellished the tale with fabric of mythical splendor, they weren't far off the mark. The hands of the gods weigh heavily upon Phèdre's brow, and they are not finished with her. While the young queen who sits upon the throne is well loved by the people, there are those who believe another should wear the crown... and those who escaped the wrath of the mighty are not yet done with their schemes for power and revenge.
Jacqueline Carey's debut was fantasy on a grand scale. In scope and vision, Kushiel's Dart was as impressive as other opening chapters of bestselling SFF series such 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. I opined that time would tell if the rest of the trilogy and the subsequent series would show as much depth, but Carey's debut was a dense and complex novel that delivered on all fronts. Well, I'm happy to report that Kushiel's Chosen is another sprawling work that builds on the storylines introduced in its predecessor and take them and their characters even further on another convoluted tale of love and betrayal.
Once more, the worldbuilding was absolutely amazing. As I mentioned in my review of Carey's debut, the backdrop for this series 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. As a matter of course, sexuality once again lies at the heart of this story, and service to the angel Naamah continues to be one of the most important religious institutions of Terre d'Ange. Kushiel's Dart was a sprawling novel, more far-reaching than most fantasy debuts, and the same can be said of Kushiel's Chosen. I was hoping that the author would take us on journeys that would enable us to discover more about her universe and I wasn't disappointed. Beyond the alternate France, other countries such as Italy, especially Venice, Croatia, and Greece are explored and play a big role as Phèdre's tale moves forward. Richly detailed and imagined in terms of cultures, religions, and politics, Jacqueline Carey produced another textured and sophisticated novel that hits all the right buttons. As was the case in the first volume, 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. Like its predecessor, Kushiel's Chosen is almost impossible to put down.
Jacqueline Carey writes with an elegance that reminds me of Guy Gavriel Kay. I'm a plot guy, always have been and always will be, and I seldom praise a writer's prose. And yet, Carey's prose is something else and it just might be the very best in the genre today. Even the darkest and more shocking scenes are written with a distinctive literary grace, making them even more powerful than they would be in the hands of a less gifted author. Her spellbinding prose creates an imagery filled with wonder and beauty that never fails to fascinate. Moreover, à la Robin Hobb, Carey also possesses a subtle human touch which imbues certain sequences with even more emotional impact. Truth to tell, I don't believe that Jacqueline Carey ever received the credit she deserved for writing such incredible books.
Last year in my review of Kushiel's Dart, I mentioned that a woman who embraces her sexuality can be quite intimidating to men. Even more so, I reckoned, to male SFF geeks. I felt that Phèdre's disturbing (according to some, even in today's Western society) sexuality, what with it tinged with sadomasochism, most probably had something to do with the fact that the Kushiel trilogy was not held with such high esteem as some of the boys' club favorites like Brandon Sanderson, Patrick Rothfuss, Scott Lynch, Joe Abercrombie, etc. Truth to tell, as a younger man I's sure I wouldn't have ever gotten into Carey's books. I also believe that Phèdre's sexuality and the way sex is portrayed and used throughout these books likely have something to do with the fact that Carey's novels seldom make the cut when feminist SFF bloggers/reviewers suggest books and series written by female SFF authors to read. Be that as it may, in order to understand and appreciate Phèdre's psyche and motivations, I still believe one must be part of a more mature audience. But not just because of the sex and other R-rated elements. As a matter of fact, I feel that it would be too easy to simply focus on the sexuality which permeates every aspect of these novels. Yes, sexuality lies at the heart of these books, no question. But there is much more than that. These stories are filled with nuances and nothing is ever black or white. Kushiel's Chosen is another remarkable and intricately plotted story featuring an unforgettable cast of characters that will leave no reader indifferent.
The book features the first person narrative of Phèdre nó Delaunay, a deeply flawed character. Still, 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. Once again, the supporting cast is comprised of a variety of three-dimensional men and women. Many of them, in their own way, through their interactions with Phèdre, add even more layers to an already multilayered plot. Several characters from Kushiel's Dart return in this sequel, but there are also quite a few new faces that will help or hinder Phèdre along the way. And even though it is Phèdre's POV which gives the book its unique flavor, this one would never have been such a satisfying read without the presence of such characters as Melisande Shahrizai, Joscelin Verreuil, Queen Ysandre, Phèdre's Boys, the pirate lord Kazan Atrabiades, and many more. And thankfully, once more, 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. For good or ill.
In terms of rhythm, I feel that Carey paced this work perfectly. Kushiel's Chosen is another doorstopper of a book, yet it's a real page-turner. The author has a knack for coming up with plot twists that suck you in and won't let go, forcing you to read just another chapter. Which then forces you to read another one and another one, and so on and so forth. Doubtless, like its predecessor, Kushiel's Chosen makes for compulsive reading! Simply put, Kushiel's Chosen is another 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 did it again, proving that Kushiel's Dart was no fluke. Edgy and sexy, true. Yet it's also as complex, satisfying, and rewarding as any of the best works of fantasy, past or present, have to offer.
Hard to put down and highly recommended. Which means that you should drop whatever you are reading now and get your hands on both Kushiel's Dart and Kushiel's Chosen ASAP if you haven't read them yet!