Kushiel's Dart by Jacqueline Carey
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Just a disclaimer here: This will be a very difficult review to write. In order to truly review this book, I have to talk about my own views on things and how books affect me personally. I am opening myself up here, which always makes me squirm. If you are reading this review and you don't agree with my beliefs on things, that's totally fine. But, I am not going to deny how I feel, because that is very important to me when I review a book, since I read books emotionally and not from a detached standpoint. Having said that, let's get this show on the road.
I can think of a list of reasons why I should not have liked this book, and I will start there:
1. I really dislike long books. As I told a friend on here, I am a 'hit it and quit it' reader--meaning, I like to read shorter to moderate-length (and occasionally longer) books, get them read, and move onto the next book. This book was a massive 901 pages!
2. Prostitution and paid sex is something that I absolutely detest the thought of. It squicks me out that someone would pay for sex or have sex for money or financial support/livelihood. I generally avoid this content like the plague, although a big part of my nature is to occasionally challenge myself and my perceptions of the world. It's good for me, even if the process is painful at times. This book has a heroine who is a courtesan, although she is called more ugly terms that I don't use. Not only that, her prostitution is a form of worship and honor to one of her dieties (if you want to call Fallen angels dieties).
3. I don't like books where the main characters sleep with a lot of people during the book. Promiscuity and sleeping around is another area that I am just not comfortable with. I especially don't like reading about sex with no love/emotional bond. This book was kind of interesting in that Phedre's sex is a form of worship. She didn't love most of the people she was intimate with, but she loved Elua, Naamah, and Kushiel, and that was expressed through her sex with her patrons. The genesis of the sacred nature of sex in this culture relates to the fact that the angel Naamah would lay with strangers to support Elua and the angels as they traveled through the Terre D'Ange. It's probably necessary to mention that the patron can be male or female. Elua's dictate is Love as thou wilt, which eliminates any stigma to same sex relationships. Although I am more of a male/female romance reader, I don't necessarily dislike same sex interactions, so that wasn't a huge issue for me.
4. I am very vanilla about sex. Meaning, I don't like reading about kinky, dark, twisted sex at all. I especially don't like reading about sadomasochistic/painful/humiliating sex. I don't understand that need and it's not something that I personally feel okay about. The main character in this story is a masochist. She was pricked by Kushiel (who is the angel who is the keeper of Hell and punishes the lost). That punishment is out of love to save their souls. Phedre possessing Kushiel's Dart marks one of her dark brown eyes with a dash of red, which is a visible manifestation of her being favored or cursed to have a physiology which made pain pleasurable for her, including emotional pain (which means that she got sexually aroused by being humiliated or forced or treated badly by her partner). I'm not going to go into detail here. I think you could use your imagination. I'll just leave it with two words to express my feelings: Ick Factor! Most of the sex scenes were very uncomfortable for me to read. In the author's defense, this book has very elegant sex scenes (for the subject matter). Somehow, she managed to avoid them coming off as repulsive and tawdry. My repulsion was based on my own comfort zones being exceeded, instead of deliberate acts of prurience on the author's part.
5. I typically don't care for stories with a lot of political intrigue and situations. Surprisingly, I found that I really got into that aspect of this story, and I was quite enthralled with the tangled web of conspiracies against members of the royal family and nobles. I believe it was because Ms. Carey did a great job of entwining Phedre into this Gordian Knot in a very intimate manner through her adoptive father, Anafiel Delaunay. Phedre becomes Delaunay's bondservant, and is trained to be a master spy as well as courtesan. Her skills aid him in his secret avocation to the royal family, hearing and seeing all, in the line of her duties as a courtesan.
6. The whole cultural set up of this story is very different from what I am used to. Surprisingly, this part was the easiest thing to get past. When I read fantasy, I expect that the author will build her own world from the ground up, and that might include other religious beliefs. It's easier for me if the author founds a whole new religious world divorced from the real world. I can easily separate myself from what I know and accept the concepts from the story and read it with a fresh mind. In this book, Ms. Carey takes a left turn from Christianity, and creates a world in which the main diety worshipped, Elua, is the son of Jesus' blood from when he was wounded on the cross and its union with Mother Earth. The other members of the pantheon are angels that chose to fall to accompany Elua in his exile. In other words, turning their back on God to follow Elua. The people with these beliefs are called D'Angelines, because they live in the country founded by Elua and his Angels called Terre D'Ange (Land of the Angel in French). Christianity still exists in the world, and its practitioners are called Yeshuites, after Jesus' Hebrew name of Yeshua. I believe there are also Muslims, but they are called Akkadians. The people who correspond to the Celts and Picts of Alba (Britain) and Eire (Ireland) have their own beliefs, and the Skaldi, who are like Norsemen, worship the Norse pantheon. Even though it was pretty different, I thought it was a pretty creative cultural genesis that Ms. Carey accomplished in this story.
Yes, that's a lot of reasons why I shouldn't have liked this book. Despite these things, I loved this book. It was fascinating. It kept my interest. I cared about the characters. Phedre was a heroine that I loved. I didn't like her assignations, and I would sort of roll my eyes when she took another one, much like Joscelin did. But, I liked her as a person. I could see that she was being true to herself, and I couldn't fault her for that. I loved how she came from very humble origins and made something wonderful of herself. I loved her loyalty and her caring heart. I loved how clever she was. She used every thing she had been taught and all her assets to accomplish what needed to be done. Even though I didn't always like what she did, I respect why she did it. It was profound to see how her view of herself and her place in the world changed. People looked down on her for being a 'whore', but she was a great spymaster, a diplomat, and an incredible tactitian. I cheered for her to find her rightful place in her world, because she earned that after all she'd suffered and lost. I loved Joscelin as well. Although he was a bit judgmental at times, so was Phedre towards him, but in a different way. It was very clear how devoted to her he was, and he was very true to his beliefs, following Cassiel, the angel who still loved God, but felt that he had to follow Elua out of loyalty. I admired that he made sacrifices to follow his beliefs, but his love for Phedre often caused him to break his vows, which in a way showed how true to following Cassiel he was. Even though he was not the main character, my mind always went back to him, wanting to see what he was doing and how he reacted to the situations around him. All the characters were real and lifelike, some in a good way, some in a bad way. But, there weren't any disposable characters in this story, even if they played small roles. And when some of the characters I grew to love got harmed and died, it made for painful reading.
At first, I had a lot of trouble with all the names of the characters and people, and countries. But, after a while, it started to make sense, and I was able to connect them to an existing frame of reference pretty well. I think it was pretty brilliantly conceived. The various peoples were extremely culturally distinct, and I really appreciated the time that Ms. Carey took to explore their cultures. It was interesting how the D'Angelines had a lot of cultural superiority that they had to get past, in order to face a huge threat from within and from the warlike, intimidating Skaldi race.
What surprised me was that I found the military aspects very fascinating. Maybe I shouldn't be surprised, because I've always had an admiration for warriors and the culture of warriors. I thought that seeing the battles and war unfold through Phedre's eyes was very interesting. I liked seeing how she used her particular skill set to aid her country in winning the war. The sacrifices she made for her country were very admirable. She showed that although she wasn't a warrior in the traditional sense, her heart was that of a warrior, willing to give everything to win and prevail, even if that involved personal sacrifice and surrender.
This was a deep book. It took me through a gamut of emotions, many not comfortable at all. It truly was epic, and I really didn't get bored, surprisingly considering its length and complexity. There were some very unpalatable aspects to this story, and the values seemed very alien to what I feel I hold sacred. However, underneath there is a commonality. Love is sacrifice, love is giving. When something is important to a person, one devotes herself to it. Even though the creeds of the people in this book seemed alien, I could identify with the idea of holding something sacred in life, and that dictating one's actions.
As one can imagine, it's not easy to sum up my thoughts on a book that is so long and rather complicated. I think I have done as best as I can, and I won't make this review any longer than necessary. I have to be honest and say I highly doubt I'll keep reading this series. It's a huge investment of my time and energy when books are this long. And since it took me to some uncomfortable places, I'm not sure I want to go through that process any more with the following books. In my mind, I want to think of Phedre and Joscelin being happy, able to find a compromise that works for both of them, and having a great love. I want to leave things that way. The good thing is, this book is a keeper, and will have fond memories of these characters who came to mean so much to me. Perhaps I will reread this book one day to revisit this fascinating world of the D'Angelines.
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