Friday, February 6, 2009

Review of Kushiel's Dart

Kushiel's Dart is the first book in the Kushiel's Legacy series by Jacqueline Carey. The series contains two related trilogies, each about different main characters with Naamah's Kiss, the first book in a third trilogy coming out in June 2009. Kushiel's Dart is followed by Kushiel's Chosen and Kushiel's Avatar, and the second trilogy consists of Kushiel's Scion, Kushiel's Justice, and Kushiel's Mercy respectively.

This is one that has sat on my shelf for a while even though I've heard a lot about how good it is from many different people. Since I'm not the world's fastest reader, I found the length of 901 pages a bit daunting and thought I'd have nothing to review for a month if I read a book that long. So I kept putting it off, which is unfortunate because I loved the alternate European setting, the characters, and the world mythology and religion Carey developed in this dark fantasy novel.

Kushiel's Dart takes place in Terre d'Ange, the equivalent of France in an imaginary medieval Europe. The country was settled by angels who chose to follow Elua, the son of Jesus and Mary Magdalene, instead of the One God. This god of Terre d'Ange was created when Mary's tears fell on Christ's blood after he was pierced and was rejected by the One God. Elua wandered the land with the angels (known as the Companions of Elua) and gave only one commandment: Love as thou wilt. The result is a society populated by the descendants of the companions that considers sex in all forms a holy calling in the service of the angel Naamah. There are thirteen houses of the Night Court whose inhabitants are dedicated as courtesans and work to fill their marque, represented by a tattoo extending from the tailbone to the base of the neck. As they earn money, the ink is gradually drawn in until the entire area is covered and the courtesan is officially free.

As a young child, Phedre is sold to a house of the Night Court by her parents, who are struggling financially and have another child on the way. Because of the flaw of a scarlet mote in her eye, Phedre will never be a courtesan herself - until it is discovered that her defect is actually the mark of Kushiel's Dart. Kushiel, a companion of Elua, was an angel of punishment and the red fleck in Phedre's eye symbolizes her ability to experience pain as pleasure. Phedre is then bought by Anafiel Delaunay, who trains her not only as a courtesan but also as an observer and spy. As Phedre becomes further in demand by the nobility of Terre d'Ange, she learns many secrets that will aid her master and eventually leads to her knowledge of a conspiracy against the king.

Kushiel's Dart intrigued me from the beginning, especially the mythology behind the world and Elua's teachings. It did take me a while to read the first 125 pages because it often referred to some characters who had not really been present and I found it hard to keep track of who was who. Fortunately, there is a handy glossary in the front that I referenced often and once the book got going, I found I did not need it nearly as much.

Since Phedre is a courtesan and the society has no qualms about sexuality, there is a lot of sex in this book, including BDSM since that is the main character's special skill. Although it is described in detail, it never seemed cheesy or overdone. Carey does not shy away from specifics but she also writes it in such a straightforward manner that it seems very natural. It did not feel like the sexual encounters were added for shock value since they were very relevant to both the plot and character. Phedre's clientele are her main way of gathering political information that is useful to Delaunay, and being one touched by Kushiel influences Phedre's actions and is a strong part of her identity.

The prose is flowery and a bit convoluted. The entire story is told in first person from Phedre's point of view. At times it is somewhat dramatic, such as at the end of the first chapter when Phedre states: "When Love cast me out, it was Cruelty who took pity upon me." Personally, it didn't bother me and is exactly the type of writing I enjoy, but I can see how others may find it distracting, especially earlier in the novel.

There is a wide cast of characters and they are well developed. In the beginning, Phedre is a child and the story gradually progresses through the years until she is a young woman. At times, Phedre seems a bit perfect since she does play a big role in important events and is very good at putting the pieces of the puzzle together to reach the correct conclusion. Yet sometimes she does not realize what is happening in time, and she still has insecurities about her gift of Kushiel's Dart, her intelligence when compared to Delaunay's other apprentice Alcuin, and Alcuin's relationship with Delaunay. The minor characters were likable, too, and my favorite was the warrior-monk Joscelin who guarded Phedre. I found his attempt to balance the rules of his order with what is necessary to protect his charge interesting reading and his character underwent many changes throughout the story.

Kushiel's Dart is a fantasy book that has mythological elements such as some prophecy and legends of gods, and actual magic is a rarity. It is not one of those books with mages throwing fireballs or people with special abilities. However, there is a great balance between a great plot and a character-driven story, lots of political intrigue, adventure, and a love story.

Other than some difficulty with keeping track of various characters and their role in the world in the beginning, the only real problem I had with this novel was that the time spent with the Skaldi was a bit slow and the culture (peopled by stereotypical Nordic barbarians) was not as unique as the land of Terre d'Ange.

Overall, I loved Kushiel's Dart and the characters, world, and story Carey told. I will definitely be reading the rest of the series.


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Mulluane said...

This is one of my all time favorite series. Dark but like you said, not overdone.

Great review!

Kristen said...

Thanks Mulluane! I'm really looking forward to reading more in this series. Have you read the second trilogy?

CĂ©lia said...

I've read this and "Kushiel's Chosen" and I really like both (I have the third one already, but didn't picked it yet). I love the way Jacqueline Carey writes and the focus on the characters and their internal fights.

Anonymous said...

Like you, mine's been in a bookcase for yonks. No longer ... it's on March's TBR pile now. :o)

Anonymous said...

I keep seeing this, but you've inspired me to add it to my TBR list.

Kristen said...

Canochina - I've heard the third one has a great ending. Last night I ordered both that one and the second one (signed).

Wend - Good idea. :) It's a great book.

Carolsnotebook - I hope you enjoy it!

Anonymous said...

I think you echoed pretty much all of my sentiments. I had pondered picking this book up a dozen different times as it always intrigued me at book stores and someone had told me it was good. I finally picked it up a few months ago and after being confused at the beginning by all the names and such I quickly fell in love. I've now read the first three books and have just ordered the second trilogy.

I love the alternate Europe setting and mythology, but the characters are really what keep me plowing through these books. They take me forever to read, but I enjoy every minute. Joscelin, Phedre, Hyacinthe, Delaunay, Melisande and so many more that we meet later. Now I'm getting excited all over again for the books to get here. This is one of the few books that I feel like I could reread and not feel like I'm losing out on time with things that are new to me. Bah, I could gush forever about these books. I think you get my point. Jacqueline Carey is ascending toward my favorite author position.

Kristen said...

Robert McKay - I'm looking forward to reading the rest of the series even more now! Can't wait for them to get here. Which one was your favorite?

I love reading about characters I can really care about and they were my favorite part of the book, too. The setting and mythology were just an added bonus.