REVIEW: Kushiel’s Dart by Jacqueline Carey

Born with a scarlet mote in her left eye, Phédre nó Delaunay is sold into indentured servitude as a child. When her bond is purchased by an enigmatic nobleman, she is trained in history, theology, politics, foreign languages, the arts of pleasure. And above all, the ability to observe, remember, and analyze. Exquisite courtesan, talented spy… and unlikely heroine. But when Phédre stumbles upon a plot that threatens her homeland, Terre d’Ange, she has no choice.

Betrayed into captivity in the barbarous northland of Skaldia and accompanied only by a disdainful young warrior-priest, Phédre makes a harrowing escape and an even more harrowing journey to return to her people and deliver a warning of the impending invasion. And that proves only the first step in a quest that will take her to the edge of despair and beyond.

Warnings: dubcon, noncon, mentions of underage sex, mentions of incest, graphic violence, sadomasochism, slut shaming, slavery, depictions of racial prejudices and tensions

Category: M/F, F/F, M/M

Kushiel’s Dart is the first book in the Kushiel’s Legacy series of political fantasy epics. It follows the story of Phédre, raised within a religious order of sex workers, and focuses heavily on religious worldbuilding, political intrigue, and interpersonal drama. Its adult content is pretty kinky in concept; Phédre is not only a part of a sex worker religion but she is also blessed by the god Kushiel to be a divinely chosen masochist, the only one of her kind in generations, known as an augissette. As she is a highly sought after courtesan that experiences pain as pleasure, she is able to work herself into the depths of the political schemes around her as a spy. It’s like a kinkier Game of Thrones; a political drama about sex and masochism.

On the one hand, Kushiel’s Dart is written incredibly well. The political schemes are all intricately woven, the complex mysteries come together like puzzle pieces, and it’s a gripping story that spans drama, secrets, romance, action and more. On the other hand, it’s also exceptionally dry. I struggled with reading this, for a number of reasons. Firstly, for the first third or so of the book (and it is a very lengthy book), Phédre is only working as a spy, and is not directly involved in anything that is happening. Her perspective is quite limited, as she is kept in the dark by her mentor, and so we only hear of the movements of the plot second hand through rumours and cryptic phrases. There are a lot of long scenes of her having conversations in library studies about what is going on in the world, or information about the history of the world dropped in expository paragraphs while she studies textbooks, none of which is all that engaging. (Please show, don’t tell!)

Eventually the plot does begin to involve her directly and it gets more exciting, but that’s a fair bit of a way into the book, and it would be easy to lose interest well before that point. It’s also written as though a memoir, and Phédre writes like a historian. While there is a charm and a personality to the prose, it remains a dry read throughout. That said it is still one of the most gripping and interesting narratives I have read in a long while, if you can parse the prose.

Emotionally, it’s a bit difficult to connect to the story, since Phédre is recollecting these events without a lot of the emotional presence of them. We don’t get her thoughts as events occur, rather we get her observations in hindsight of them, which means that even if she states how she was feeling when something happened, we don’t feel it with her. As such she comes off a little lacking in personality, a little bland despite all of the things she goes through. I was also annoyed with the people in her life; her mentor for keeping her so in the dark, her best friends for the slut and kink shaming, even her adoptive brother for his innocent naivety.

That said, there was such a wide variety of dynamics between Phédre and the people she conducted relationships with, and it was a very fascinating journey to see how she interacted with a number of them. While there wasn’t any one of them that had the development one would expect from, say, a romance novel wherein the end game is one couple, still there was so many kinds of relationships in her experiences that made for a wide range of emotional connections. From the violent but respectful clients, to the fatherly mentor, the vanilla romantic interests, and the dominating villains that wished to control her, Phédre’s relationships were a fascinating thing to witness, and it’s a joy to see a novel let a sex worker character conduct such a wide variety of relationships without bringing it back around to shaming sex work. Phédre isn’t a monogamous, straight, or vanilla person, and her story meandering through encounters with many types of people was a joy to read.

The worldbuilding is, outside of the religious orders, pretty apparently based in real world cultures. There are a variety of countries and peoples present in this world, and it’s not especially subtle who is meant to represent who; there are the french and the italians, vikings and romani, celts and indians. I can’t speak to how well it represents all of these groups in it’s fictional renditions of them, but the real creativity in worldbuilding comes from the religion of Terre d’Ange. On that front, it’s a setting with a rather haunting beauty. The people of Terre d’Ange are descended from angels, and build their religion around the worship of these deified angels. I would have, probably, liked the religious concepts and iconography a bit more if it hadn’t been so heavily based in both Catholic and Judaic lore, but that’s just myself. It’s a wonderfully fleshed out system of belief, of a people that follow apostate angelic ancestors. (Even if it’s not exactly unique to have a race of people be otherworldly beautiful beyond mortal aesthetics)

That said, I’m not sure that the worldbuilding always meshes up with the concepts that the author is working with. For instance, the amount of slut shaming that characters exhibit at times seems to be at odds with this countries divine sex worker revering religion. This is a culture built on the precepts of a rebel angel and his sex worker companion, but we are to believe that sex workers following in the footsteps of this goddess are derided as ‘whores’? The amount of characters that disrespect Phédre’s profession makes little sense if they have been raised in a culture that worships sex work. We are also to believe that a culture that rather explicitly does not care about things like sexual orientation, where everyone is presumed pansexual by default and who follow the religious mandate “Love as Thou Wilt” has a character who’s father disowned him for being gay? It feels like the author didn’t quite think through the implications of the religious culture she had designed, and wanted to incorporate some real world attitudes for Phédre to come up against without considering if they made sense in her world.

Hands down this book’s most interesting aspect is in it’s depictions of masochism. I have not, I think, ever before read a better representation of the true enjoyment of pain, fear, and humiliation. Phédre is blessed by Kushiel to be an anguisette, someone who derives true pleasure from pain, and her experiences are soaked in that blessing. From the time she is a child she is fascinated by pain, and as an adult she pursues it and partners that can give it to her. There are characters that do not understand this about her, and she herself at times wishes that she wasn’t an anguisette, but it remains a key part of who she is and how she experiences sex and sexual attraction. Her encounters with both men and women are laced in a sadomasochistic sensuality. While the book isn’t strictly speaking written as erotica, and can be more intellectually sensual than pornographic, the ways in which violent sexuality permeates the narrative is at once both arousing and shocking, potentially disturbingly so if you can not relate to Phédre’s experiences. I can not praise this book enough for it’s depictions of a sexuality that is defined by an attraction to and an enjoyment of pain and fear. I thoroughly adored many of her partners, and the intensity of the power dynamics and struggles between her and each of them. I don’t think I’ve ever read such a groundbreaking piece of kink fantasy fiction.

Altogether this was a difficult book to read, and to review, for a number of reasons. I was, honestly, bored a lot of the way through it and it was often a chore to make myself keep reading. Despite that, it was breathtaking, and had a lot content that spoke to me so strongly that I couldn’t bring myself to stop reading it either, no matter how bored it made me. While I may have, on many occasion, been frustrated with it, still there was something undeniably enriching about it nevertheless. Your mileage may vary with this; you may find the first third of the book too much to get through, or you may not find politics as dry as me and find it just fine. Either way, if you do manage to read it, I think anyone would find the journey well worth having gone on.

Have you read Kushiel’s Dart? Let me know what YOU thought by leaving me a comment!

One thought on “REVIEW: Kushiel’s Dart by Jacqueline Carey

  1. I read it several years ago and remember being really fascinated by it. I didn’t find it dry, but then again, I was in grad school and was spending most of my time reading academic history, so…
    I meant to pick up the rest of the trilogy, but I think maybe my library only had the first book and not the sequels? Your review makes me think a reread might be rewarding – maybe I’ll revisit it.


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