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.