Kushiel's Dart

by Jacqueline Carey

Cover image

Series: Kushiel's Legacy #1
Publisher: Tor
Copyright: June 2001
Printing: March 2002
ISBN: 0-765-34298-7
Format: Mass market
Pages: 912

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I read this book some time back, before I started reviewing books as I read them, but it didn't seem right to review the sequel before reviewing the first book.

Besides, this is the best book that I've read this year.

I must admit a weakness for books told in the first person if the narrative voice is well-realized, consistent, and richly individualistic. All of this is true of Phèdre, who is one of the most compelling characters that I've ever met in a book. Her story of her life draws the reader into both a rich and detailed world of intrigue and a rich and detailed swirl of complex emotions, and is simply one of the most beautifully told stories I've encountered.

Phèdre nó Delaunay is a servant of Naamah, a courtesan. She is an indentured servant, first to one of the Houses of the Night Court and then to a nobleman who becomes her teacher and surrogate father, and in his service she is drawn into the intrigues, betrayals, and dangers of the court of Terre d'Ange. And, finally, she is also an anguissette, one cursed or blessed to experience pain and pleasure as one.

This is, in basic form, another fantasy quest brick, a thousand pages of epic journey where the young hero, marked by destiny, comes from humble beginnings to mingle with kings and save the world. But the hero is a heroine unapologetically and openly masochistic and submissive to pain, events linger in a small number of thoroughly explored locales rather than wandering through a map, the story has an elaborate depth and rich texture unlike anything else I've read, and the world... oh, the world.

Terre d'Ange is one of those remarkable fantasy worlds, too rare by far, that features almost no outright magic and certainly nothing as pedestrian as wizards with spells, but nonetheless is full of deep background tapestry of mythology and a rich sense of otherness that shades everything that happens. The gods are not only real, but impressive, mysterious, and original, woven into a background that mixes, combines, and reinterprets pieces of Christian and Jewish mythology into something truly fascinating. There is ability and power in the world, but subtly woven into complex characters in a way that supplements rather than supplants their inherent humanity. In short, it's sense of wonder and spiritual depth done as well as I've ever seen.

Equally impressive is the frank and open treatment of sexuality, deeply woven into both the world and Phèdre's life. She is a courtesan in a world in which that profession is honorable and valued and a masochist through the touch of a god, both are integral to her character and are developed slowly and fully throughout the book, and neither are ever played for cheap titillation. In fact, nothing in this book is cheap; the feeling of rightness and depth to the world supports suspension of disbelief better than all but a few novels. The handling of the standard trappings of BDSM is nothing short of brilliant, imbuing them with a sense of ritual, formality, and context that's as different as night from day from the normal fictional treatment.

I'm raving, I know. I truly loved this book. The comparison that comes to mind is to Guy Gavriel Kay, which from me is a very high compliment. I think this book is the equal of all but Kay's best, comparing favorably to Tigana or A Song for Arbonne and falling short of The Sarantine Mosiac by only a hand's breadth. I cared deeply about the characters in this book in the same way that I do Kay's, and the last half of the book was impossible to put down.

The book suffers somewhat from a slow start, and the large cast of characters is occasionally bewildering, but hang in there. It may take you a while to get used to the language and style, but after the first 100 pages this book picks up speed and never looks back. Highly, highly recommended.

Followed by Kushiel's Chosen.

Rating: 9 out of 10

Reviewed: 2003-10-25

Last modified and spun 2015-09-08