By Jacqueline Carey, 2001, Fantasy
TOR, $25.95, ISBN #0312872380
Followed by Kushiel’s Chosen and Kushiel’s Avatar
The cover for Kushiel’s Dart immediately caught my attention when I first saw this book while waiting in line at the local Barnes and Noble. Having an interest in architecture, any book with columns on the cover automatically interests me and the striking figure of the nude woman with a beautiful tattoo didn’t hurt the appeal either. But the blurb on the inside cover about Phedre, a courtesan with a heart of gold had me rolling my eyes thinking it was another book selling sex rather than substance. So imagine my surprise when I finally picked up the book six months later and discovered that it was plot and characters that drove the book, not kinky sex.
Phedre was born with a red speck in her left eye. This made her unsuitable to be an adept of the Night Court, which is comprised of thirteen houses of prostitution – each catering to a special taste. In the alternate history of this Renaissance world, the citizens of Terre d’Ange believe in an offshoot of Christianity that worships Elua, the child that sprung from mother earth when Mary Magdalene’s tears mixed with Christ’s blood. Elua preached free love and with the eight angels who were his followers he settled in the country of Terre d’Ange, our present day France.
Phedre grows up being an outsider in the Night Court until one day a nobleman named Delaunay recognizes the red speck as Kushiel’s dart, a sign that she has been chosen by Kushiel, the angel who inflicts pain on sinners. As such Phedre derives pleasure from pain. Delaunay buys Phedre and trains her to be a spy while making her the most expensive courtesan in history. In her dealing with her clients, she learns a secret that threatens her country but before she can inform the King she is kidnapped and sold into slavery in Skaldia. The rest of story deals with her journey back to Terre d’Ange and her role in saving her country. Along the way she relies on the help of her bodyguard, a Cassiline priest-warrior, a gypsy-like Tsingani, and warriors from Alba (England) and Eire (Ireland).
The atmosphere of the court is suitably Machiavellian, the villain and villainess multi-dimensional, and the customs of Terre d’Ange are rich and complex. Phedre is an intriguing heroine who defies classification and her story is poignant without being mushy. It is her interesting tastes in sex that provide the book with its graphic moments. There are some S&M scenes that might offend some people, but they are well done and not overly graphic. I my only problem is that I wished Jacqueline Carey would have gone a bit lighter on foreshadowing, since it gives away a lot of surprising turns in the story.
Because of the graphic nature of some scenes, this book will surely offend some people. If you strongly object to S&M in any context, read this book so that you can rant about how profane it is; or how it is nothing but a sexed up fantasy or a watered down romance. But any book that causes no controversy at all is likely to be bland. Kushiel’s Dart is a lot of things, but one thing it most certainly is not is bland.
Kusheil’s Dart is a fabulous stand alone-book, but the author has plans to make this a trilogyy. The second book, Kushiel’s Chosen, will be out in April 2002 and she is doing research on Egypt for the third book. I know I’ll be waiting eagerly for the second installment.