Author: Jacqueline Carey
Publication date: 2001
Publisher: Tor Books
Number of pages: 1015
The land of Terre d'Ange is a place of unsurpassing beauty and grace. It is said that angels found the land and saw it was good...and the ensuing race that rose from the seed of angels and men live by one simple rule: Love as thou wilt.
Phèdre nó Delaunay is a young woman who was born with a scarlet mote in her left eye. Sold into indentured servitude as a child, her bond is purchased by Anafiel Delaunay, a nobleman with very a special mission...and the first one to recognize who and what she is: one pricked by Kushiel's Dart, chosen to forever experience pain and pleasure as one.
Phèdre is trained equally in the courtly arts and the talents of the bedchamber, but, above all, the ability to observe, remember, and analyze. Almost as talented a spy as she is courtesan, Phèdre stumbles upon a plot that threatens the very foundations of her homeland. Treachery sets her on her path; love and honor goad her further. And in the doing, it will take her to the edge of despair...and beyond. Hateful friend, loving enemy, beloved assassin; they can all wear the same glittering mask in this world, and Phèdre will get but one chance to save all that she holds dear.
It took me some two weeks, even a little more maybe, to go through this super thick book. But it was definitely worth the time I spent on it. I enjoyed it so much; I wasn’t far from making it a new favorite.
We’re following Phedre, sold by her mother to a courtesan house while she was just a little child. A few years later Anafiel Delaunay, a nobleman, identifies the little red spot she’s always had in her eye to be the sign of Kushiel, the punishing God, which means she’s been chosen to always experience pleasure in pain. He then takes her under his wing, and will teach her not only to become an elite courtesan but also an exceptional spy (“his eyes and ears”, in Phedre’s own words). Trained to collect the most powerful men’s secrets, Phedre will soon enough be trapped in a huge political plot that threatens her nation.
My summary is pretty vague and only covers a tiny part of what this book really is about, but it’s impossible to be more precise without spoiling everything. The story is so dense and slowly grows more and more complex as the author weaves the web of conflicted relationships between nations and characters she created. I must admit it took me a while to fully get into the story and understand all the ins and outs – and even now that I’m finished I’m still not certain I understood everything – but that’s always the case with these thick fantasy books and my experience shows that past the first 100 pages or so, I almost always enjoy the story greatly so it’s worth making an effort at first. In this book however I wasn’t sure I’d end up enjoying it because there were a few things that made me cringe a little in the beginning, and although I went over them later that’s what holds me from making this book a favorite.
The first thing is that at first I thought it was an erotica book. Phedre is a courtesan, in a society where sex has been put up as one of the most respectable arts, so there are quite a few sex scenes. And since our heroine has been chosen by the Gods to find pleasure in pain you can easily imagine that we’re not talking about the sweet kind of sex, but rather the kind that involves whips, chains, and the like. Another thing is that Phedre, as well as Delaunay’s other pupil, Alcuin, are taught how to please their clients from the age of 10, and I don’t remember how old they were when Delaunay sends them to their first client, but they definitely weren’t adults yet. I know it takes place in a society where morals are different from ours, and where sex is everything but a taboo subject but still, it annoyed me a little to see children involved in such activities.
However, if the erotica thing is the only reason for which you’re unsure about whether you should pick this book or not, I definitely encourage you to go for it. I’m certainly not a fan of erotica; I even tend to skip sex scenes in books when they become too much detailed. Here I didn’t have to skip any page, the writing is beautiful and the sex was never described in a vulgar way. And if the beginning did deal a lot with sex, the further the story progressed the more it became a secondary aspect with the plot becoming more and more political and Phedre more of a spy than a courtesan.
Phedre was an interesting character. I didn’t always understand her and I couldn’t identify with her but I did really like her for who she was, how true to herself and to her loved ones she was. And I liked her wits, intelligence and bravery. She’s an uncommon heroine, who you may look down at first because she’s a courtesan, but in fact she’s so much more than just that. She definitely won a place on the top list of my favorite heroines.
While I am on the characters I need to say some words about Joscelin, the religious knight engaged by Delaunay to ensure Phedre’s safety. I didn’t like him so much at first, because of the vows he made he sounded very rigid and narrow-minded, but just like Phedre’s, my feelings for him slowly evolved and I ended up liking him a lot, for his devotion and kindness. And although the two of them couldn’t be more mismatched, I thoroughly enjoyed the pair he and Phedre formed together.
There were so many more great characters besides these two: Hyacinthe, Delaunay, Alcuin, Melisande… but I won’t talk about them all, my review would be endless then!
I really had a great adventure with all these brilliant protagonists. To quote Jacqueline Carey’s own words, Kushiel’s dart is “a historical novel containing a history that never happened”, and that’s exactly what it is. The starting point for her world and mythology are medieval Europe and the existing religions and from there she created a whole new universe straight out of her imagination, but which sounds so real nevertheless. I can only salute her talent.
The story takes place over a long period of time, a decade at least, and is told retrospectively by Phedre. She’s such a great narrator! I felt like I was sitting by the fireplace with her telling me her story. When I turned the last page, I was torn between happiness because I was finally done with this book that was keeping me busy for weeks, and sadness because I didn’t want to leave this world and these characters just yet. Well, there still are two more books in the trilogy so… until next time Phedre, Joscelin, Hyacinthe and others!
I recommend this book to you if: you like fantasy, epic journeys, and outstanding female protagonists. Don’t let you scare by the erotica aspect, sure there is sex but that’s not what I’ll remember of this book.