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Cassiel’s Servant is the latest of Jacqueline Carey’s books set in the same world as her beloved Kushiel’s Legacy series, which introduced the land of Terre d’Ange, its pantheon, and the iconic heroine Phèdre nó Delaunay. This new novel covers the same major events as the first book in the series, Kushiel’s Dart, but it has a different entry point and voice since it’s narrated by another character. It’s told from the perspective of Joscelin, the young priest in Cassiel’s order of formidable warriors who is bewildered by his monastery’s assignment to guard the courtesan Phèdre. But his new charge is also a spy, and when she discovers secrets that threaten their homeland, the two are sent on a perilous adventure where their only allies are one other: Cassiel’s follower, dedicated to a life of duty and celibacy, and Naamah’s follower, dedicated to sacred sex work and destined to find pleasure in pain due to bearing the mark of another deity, the punisher Kushiel. And in the course of their struggle for survival, the monk and the courtesan fall in love.

It’s a familiar plot if you’ve read Kushiel’s Dart, but there are some differences given the change in perspective. Joscelin’s first-person narration is more straightforward and less melodramatic than Phèdre’s, and the first 20% or so is new story covering his life before he became her protector. It starts with the day two monks come to his home, hoping he’ll follow the tradition of middle sons joining the Cassiline Brotherhood and accompany them to the monastery. From there, it delves into everyday life as part of the order, training, and the friendships and rivalries he forges there. His formative years show his wholehearted devotion to Cassiel, the angelic companion who remained celibate to devote himself to protecting Yeshua’s son Elua, and his desire to emulate his dedication to duty. He certainly is the stickler for rules and vows met in the first book in the series, but he is also loyal to those he cares about, which sets the stage for his eventual growth into a more mature version of himself.

Although it has a different viewpoint and less ornate prose, Cassiel’s Servant is like Kushiel’s Dart in that it’s a beautifully written, heartfelt story built around epic events and complex characters I felt for. This novel set in an alternate version of our world has little actual magic but is more magical than many, and it’s my favorite fantasy book I’ve read this year. I love the setting Carey has developed and how the main characters’ society developed based on one key difference: Blessed Elua, who grew from the earth when Yeshua’s blood merged with the tears of Mary of Magdala. Although his grandfather the One God abandoned him, several angels—including Cassiel, Naamah, and Kushiel—left heaven to watch over him, becoming known as Elua’s Companions. He taught others to “Love as thou wilt,” and as demonstrated through Phèdre’s service, love is not bound by gender and all love is accepted as long as it’s consensual. In Phèdre and Joscelin’s time, descendants of these angels walk the land they settled (a version of France), and there are various houses embroiled in political intrigue. It’s a richly created setting, and even though other parts of Europe are more in line with their real-world counterparts, the cultures and people are all well realized. (Whether its because of this book itself or the time that has passed since I first read it, I appreciated that more here than in Kushiel’s Dart, where I found one of the more familiar lands less interesting.)

Once Joscelin and Phèdre meet, it does follow the same basic storyline as the first book in the series with the occasional scene or conversation that didn’t include the original narrator. I didn’t remember a lot of the details of Kushiel’s Dart, though some of it did trickle back to me as I read, but I didn’t find that to be a problem. That may be because the two main characters and their relationship was the most memorable part of the previous novel to me, but in any case, I loved reading Joscelin’s perspective. It’s still largely Phèdre’s story since she’s the one who becomes entangled in the bigger events and has the most influence, but I still found it compelling when viewed through the eyes of a character in a supporting role—and Joscelin is still an important part of it.

Both characters have different types of strength, and this showed how they complemented each other in the course of their journey. Phèdre’s strengths lie in her intelligence and wisdom: her knowledge of politics and languages, her intuition and perception, and her grasp of human nature. As a skilled warrior, Joscelin is able to fight and defend, but I thought this highlighted how much of his strength was in his ability to adapt: questioning his long-held beliefs and changing his perspective, coming to understand Phèdre, and becoming especially good at protecting her because he could anticipate her actions and reactions. He knew what kind of trouble this impulsive, reckless, brave, compassionate woman was likely to find, and I enjoyed seeing him go from disdaining her service to Naamah to realizing just how incredible Phèdre is and admiring the hell out of her.

Cassiel’s Servant is a beautifully written novel exploring the relationship between two of Jacqueline Carey’s most beloved characters, and once again, she’s demonstrated why she’s a master storyteller. It feels a bit like sacrilege to rate this higher than Kushiel’s Dart, but the best I can do is consider what I think and feel about a book at the time I read it. And whether it’s because of the book itself or the reader I am now, I had a slightly better experience with Joscelin’s story, mainly because I got into it immediately without the convoluted prose and early discussions involving houses and people that hadn’t been encountered yet. I just loved this book and these two characters, and maybe I’ll find that I feel even more strongly about Kushiel’s Dart when I do revisit it—which I am excited to do after reading Joscelin’s take on its events.

My Rating: 9/10

Where I got my reading copy: ARC from the publisher.

Read an Excerpt from Cassiel’s Servant