Kushiel’s Dart, by Jacqueline Carey

  • Title: Kushiel’s Dart
  • Author: Jacqueline Carey
  • Published: Tor Fantasy, March 2002
  • Pages: 816 mass market paperback
  • Standalone or series: First in Kushiel’s Legacy series, which is made up of three related trilogies. The first of which follows protagonist Phèdre.
  • Why I read it: On a recent Smart Bitches recommended fantasy reads post this book was allllll over the comment thread. I had never ever heard a peep about it before, but as soon as I mentioned it on twitter I got so many responses I went out and got it from my library immediately.

There is no way to summarize, reflect upon, or have even the most superficial discussion about Kushiel’s Dart without mentioning the religion of the world Ms. Carey created. The religion of Terre D’Ange is the foundation for all the characters’ personalities, actions, goals, culture, biases, and motivations.

I found Kushiel’s Dart to be similar to Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Mists of Avalon or The Firebrand in general and for the significance placed on religion.

More on their religion shortly, but you’ll have to bear with me for a few first. Also, this post is SOOOOO LOOOONG, consider yourself warned. Also I expect a discussion at the end from those of you who’ve read it!!!!!

Check out all my thoughts after the jump…

I had a hard time wrapping my brain around the world building due to both the complexity and the (I found to be) non-traditional and dramatically unorthodox side of their religious practices. And just how much these people built their entire lives around religion.

Eventually I understood it a little bit more as I started to think that similar to the druids and other medieval people in Mists of Avalon and across our world in real history as a whole the more ancient peoples everywhere based their lives on religion and myths as they didn’t have science or technology. It’s just that the religion, myths, and gods of Terre D’Ange were not only new-to-me (obviously since it’s fiction ;) and I had to learn them so I didn’t understand them right away, but also what they TAUGHT in-and-of-itself didn’t sit right with me.

I’m sort of phrasing it this way for shock value, but it’s also pretty true: it is based on sex.

Here’s the background that is NEED TO KNOW: The map at the front of the book looks much like Western Europe but with fictional names for the territories and countries: Alba, Eire, Skalda, Hellas, etc. Similar to the slightly skewed but oh-so-familiar sounding country names the peoples from these lands bear some physical and some cultural resemblances to the countries as we know them in real life. But this fictionalization and renaming of the familiar makes for a SUPER intriguing setting, giving Ms. Carey so much room to play, reshape, and create a captivating world.

Our protagonists are from Terra D’Ange and thus the opinions and feelings of the reader are shaped to be in their favor. The country is named after the eight fallen angels who followed the Blessed Elua as he wandered the lands and they all sired the people who then populated it a thousand years before this story takes place.  Elua was conceived in Mother Earth’s womb from the blood of the crucified Yeshua, Son of the One God, and the tears of the Magdalene.

Elua taught to “love as thou wilt.” Every time I read that precept I got goosebumps, it is very powerful in the novel, love someone even if they are foreign, or ugly, or poor, or they don’t love you back, all reoccurring issues which were beautiful in their openness to love, and dedication to caring for others.

Oftentimes this is slanted in a sexual manner, where I got the feeling that the characters were thinking more along the lines of “MAKE LOVE as thou wilt” and with anyone even if they are masochistic or homosexual. This definitely contributed to part of the sexual overload of this world. So many people in the story (including Phèdre herself) were bi-sexual or gay and given that the rest of the setting was medieval it was harder for me to believe how acceptable this was in that setting, and it’s not even totally acceptable in our world in real life, so this contributed to my difficulty of keeping my suspension of disbelief intact.

Like many high fantasy novels you have to sink slowly into the world building with an open mind, and in this case the writing was extraordinarily detailed with layers being let down in front of the reader’s eyes over time. There wasn’t a mess of info-dumping and there was plenty of showing versus telling us about the land of Terre D’Ange and their culture.  Through no fault of the writing style I just didn’t buy into this world right away. Which made the epic quest and adventure story-line full of personal betrayals and political intrigue that much harder for me to believe in and root for.

And I never really felt like I fully understood the motivations of the main characters, Phèdre and Joscelin, in several very important instances.

Not to ruin my second post about this series, but by the second book I was MUCH MORE onboard with all these. I don’t know if my mind (and morals maybe?) had more time to adjust and get my suspension of disbelief up and running full steam ahead once I had the first 800 pages of the series behind me or what, but I had harder time with Kushiel’s Dart for sure.

Dear God *wiping sweat from brow* I haven’t even STARTED on the plot and characters yet! *Flexing fingers* And I left so much so very cool stuff out! Well that just goes to show the awesomeness of the world building. This is often touted as the best part of the books…well for me, I would say its the most impressive part for sure!

Here is the deal with the story itself: Phèdre is sold by her parents to one of the 13 houses in the Court of the Night Blooming Flowers, where children are trained in the arts of service and pleasure. Each house has a certain canon and skill set such as: performing arts, divination of dreams and portents, traditional and perfect elegance, sadomasochism…oh God I’m doing it again…no more world-building I swear!

Each house serves Naamah, one of the fallen angels who accompanied the blessed Elua. Naamah sold her body at times to support Elau in his wanderings thus prostitution is a major part of their religion and it is an honor to be a Servant of Naamah. No one is sure where Phèdre is going to fit in, until a visitor, Anafiel Delauny, recognizes a discoloration in one of her eyes. She has a scarlet fleck in her left eye, everyone always thought it a flaw, but he recognizes it as Kushiel’s Dart; reciting lines form an epic poem setting Phèdre’s destiny in place as an “anguisette” or one who will always find pleasure through pain. Kushiel was another of Elua’s eight companions, and Delauny’s summation comes true, partly with his own assistance.

Old enough to be her father, he buys her and becomes her mentor. He is a spy and is deeply enmeshed in political intrigue, at first it’s unclear if he is a good or bad guy and what his goals and aims are. Many times Phèdre is frustrated with her ignorance as to the bigger picture of Delauny’s plans and why certain people visit him, but she also understands that he does it to protect her. Delauny sees potential in Phèdre for her intelligence, ability to learn languages and other diplomacy skills quickly, and also for her sexuality. He sees her as a tool to gain information, if she chooses to become a Servant of Naamah, she will be so unique as an “anguisette” that she will be in high demand, including from people he is spying on.

Written in first person perspective by Phèdre she tells the story as if looking back on the past, giving us lots of foreshadowing of big things to come. As she sheds her innocence both sexually and in espionage she embarks on a quest for her country that takes her across the continent and seas. On her journey she is accompanied by Joscelin, he’s a warrior of the Casseline Brotherhood (Cassiel was another of Elua’s companions, the Ultimate Companion). While there is a romance story line there, that is one of the motivational issues I was referring to that I just didn’t get.

I just didn’t understand Phèdre’s motivations for her service to Naamah in the horrible conditions of her quest, being used in such cruel ways, and how she yearned for this! While I know somewhat of the BDSM world, I really though Phèdre should have resisted or hated it more, instead of giving in and thinking each time “oh I should hate this but I can’t help but love it!”

For those of you familiar with the books, I had the HUGEST problem for her feelings for Melissande. Melissande is a major player in the political intrigue, people are plotting invasions, trying to overthrow the crown, prevent royalty for marrying, just so many huge important story-lines. As such Phèdre comes into contact with her, including sexually. Melissande is so HORRIBLY EEEEVIL and Phèdre is all “oh I should hate you, and I can’t explain why I don’t, but I love you and I love these disgustingly cruel things you do to me.”

The no explanation part bothered me. Since it’s told in first person we rely on Phèdre to explain it fully, but she never does. And poor Joscelin as part of the Casseline Brotherhood swore all these vows which prevents their romance from blossoming, both physically and emotionally. And I just wish he broke it already! Again since it’s first person we don’t get a look into his head so it’s so hard to get where he’s coming from, and again, why they literally live and die by their religion.

—- Y’all, I’m gonna have to call it a day with this one. I cannot, and should not, keep going. But tomorrow I’ll be back with my (much more succinct, I promise!) thoughts on book 2 – Kushiel’s Chosen.

Basically reading Kushiel’s Dart was a mixture of hard work – getting my brain to think in terms of this world – but also so much enjoyment of the depth of characterization, thrilling action plot, and mythology in the story. It is NOT for everyone as there are graphic sex scenes (many of which I personally enjoyed, yay lusty bits, but some were a bit difficult due to the BDSM factor) and it is a challenging and non-traditional world based on sexual pleasure and acceptance. Obviously I liked it enough to read the next two books, and I don’t undertake another 1,600 pages of reading unless I think it’s worth the investment!

*HEAVING HUGE SIGH OF RELIEF* Aright y’all, what do you think?!???

Also PS: i want a certificate to hang on my wall because i am so effin proud i memorized Terr D’Ange’s entire religion.



13 Responses

  1. I was given a copy of this book by an editor at Tor who told me – this kind of story is what we’re looking for in paranormal romance.

    That said, I took one look at the heroine’s “motivation” – pain gives her sexual pleasure — and thought, “Huh?”

    Plus, I wasn’t one to really slog through the world-building that occurs in many fantasy books but . . .

    Slog I did and little by little I was blown away by the premise and the world and the main character. So much so that I was counting the minutes until the sequel and then the next . . . Life intruded after that, but I have them on my TBR pile.

    This book is not for the faint of heart because of the sexual aspects, some of which are quite edgy. But I recommend it all the time as a demonstration of how to go outside the box and build an amazing world.

    As for Phedre’s relationship with Melissande, that is hard to fathom and even understand and yet for me it worked. Phedre understood Melissande on all levels and could even appreciate the pain that Melissande brought her and all those around her. Rather twisted in a way, but it somehow seemed right to me.

    How I wish I had time to dip into my TBR for the other books, but unfortunately revisions and deadlines call to me!

  2. Caridad: Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts! I think so much from a simple reader perspective and it didn’t even dawn on me to say what an excellent example for world-building this is for literature in general! I appreciate your perspective on Melisande, I think she disturbed me so much I didn’t think too hard about her “twisted-ness”

  3. I LOVE this entire series so much, I re read it all the time. I am so glad you decided to read it. Keep reading it!


  4. This book really blew me away, too! I had no idea what I was in for reading it, so in a way, it was a treat, because I was so surprised. I was like, this author is actually making the heroine a pain-loving masochist? Who gets information out of people through her masochism? I thought it was a totally ballsy and fresh premise.

    The Melisande thing, I can see why you’d have problems with it. I mean, I just took the narrator’s word for it all, and sometimes you can’t control who you love. But she did keep fooling poor Phedre. I wonder, if Mel had been a guy, if it would’ve been more believable. In a way, I do think it would’ve.

    I had to laugh when you said this: “Obviously I liked it enough to read the next two books, and I don’t undertake another 1,600 pages of reading unless I think it’s worth the investment!”

    LOL. No doubt!

  5. What a comprehensible review and I’m so glad I have Kushiel’s Dart on the shelves. I always feel that with fantasy you need to give yourself time to get acquainted with the characters, the world building, the rules and I don’t mind the sex being sometimes dark and edgy.

    You definitely confirmed my enthusiasm for this book Lustyreader! Now to find time to read this 800 plus page mammoth story ;D

  6. GREAT review, and I’m still not sure if I want to read it. I’ve been seeing the books for years and keep passing it up. Now, I’m not afraid of long, complicated fantasy world. I read every Terry Goodkind book and own them all:) After reading your review I think I would feel like you do, and I’m not sure if I want to or not. I just can’t make up my mind. Let me see how you feel after the second book:)

  7. *applauding*

    Go Charlotte! I’m so glad you enjoyed KD. I read this book as a challenge from CJ. While I enjoyed it, I still have book 2 on my shelf.

    Have you read The Black Jewels trilogy?? Now I want you to read those. I forced CJ to read the first one in that same challenge.

  8. Monica: i love the enthusiasm all the big-time fans brought to my twitter discussions on Phedre and her world. Just hearing how much y’all LOVE these books, even if they don’t totally work for me, was just that much more convincing to give them a try!

    Carolyn Crane: it sure was a deviation from the norm, any previous fiction reading about BDSM seemed like LITEFM compared to this! And you are *genius* for bringing up what if Melisande were a man. I am going to have to put some heavy thought into that, i have a sneaking suspicion it will make a difference…

    Leotine: i hope you have time soon! i definitely feel more “well read” if that makes sense, now that ive gotten into this series. not that any lit prof would agree with me! but for genre readers it certainly boosted my reading repertoire!

    Moonsanity: *blushing* awww thank you! and thank you for reading the whole thing, haha. i totally get where you’re coming from, and to be honest, i don’t see myself re-reading these…ummm ever.

    Kati: i loved your posts from reading KD and definitely added The Black Jewel’s Trilogy to my TBR. Leotine just recommended it to me on twitter too! i will let you know when i get them!

  9. Phew, that was a long review! I haven’t read these books, so I can’t really discuss them–but they sound very complicated. :)

  10. Wow – great review girl! I also have not read this but based on other reviews, I have it in my tbr. I really need to get to it – I want to be part of the discussion! LOL :)

  11. […] I read it: Despite my reservations about the first in the series I wanted to try the next one since I had bothered to memorize an entire complex […]

  12. You are such a great reviewer! Although I LOVE to read, everytime I sit down and try to review a book, I feel it turns out like a 5th grade book report:) I’m hoping I can get Carey’s world straight in my head so that I can enjoy the story. Right now, I feel kind of bombarded by information that isn’t processing, which is always the problem I encounter when I try to read high fantasy. I’m going to stick with it though, simply because I WANT to love it!

  13. One of the things that hit me when I read Kushiel’s Dart was how good Carey’s research was. You mention the place names as fictional or artificial constructs that allowed Carey to play with the world we know in a new an interesting way. That’s true in part, but it’s also false. Carey is obviously very well acquainted with the history of the periods she utilized when forming this book. Alba is an ancient name for pre-Saxon England, Eire or Eriu one for Ireland and so on. Many of the names were given a light twist from their ancient counterparts, and Terre d’ Ange obviously fully constructed, (France at that time was known as Gaul), but her effort to take history and re-imagine it added by far to the richness of the text in my opinion.

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