Review: Kushiel’s Dart

Kushiel’s Dart by Jacqueline Carey

As you may have gathered from the fact that I press The Sundering onto any fantasy fan I encounter, I love Jacqueline Carey. But while I started with her brilliant deconstruction of The Lord of the Rings, Carey is most known for the Kushiel’s Legacy series and its companion trilogy. Kushiel’s Dart (and then the rest of the series!) was the logical step from The Sundering, but a problem cropped up—you see, it is apparently so good people have stolen all the copies from my local library at school. I could only get it at my local library at home, and as the end of summer crept up on me, I made sure to pick it up and read it before I went back to school. And, of course, I devoured it.

Kushiel’s Dart takes place in an alternate Europe, where the son of Jesus and Mary Magdalene settled what we would call France with eight angelic companions, who interbred with the mortal inhabitants, creating Terre d’Ange, a nation of unsurpassed beauty. Phèdre is one such d’Angeline, incredibly gorgeous save for one minute flaw—a red mote in her left eye. Sold to Cereus House by her parents at a young age, Phèdre’s bond is purchased by Anafiel Delaunay, who recognizes her flaw as a marker of an incredible gift—Phèdre can experience pain as pleasure. He trains her to not only become a courtesan, but a spy. When one of Delaunay’s intricate schemes backfires, Phèdre finds herself and her guardian, Joscelin, sold into slavery, and Terre d’Ange in terrible danger—that only they can stop.

Before I read Carey, I was cautious and a bit dismissive of Kushiel’s Legacy by way of what I’d heard about the companion trilogy; it always sounded a bit like Outlander to me, to be honest—too heavy on the romance for my taste. But after I’d actually read Carey, I realized that I will read anything this woman commits to paper, and Kushiel’s Dart proved me wrong about the romance anyway. There’s romance and plenty of sex—Phèdre is a courtesan, after all—but it’s a very political novel, and I don’t just mean the complex geopolitics of Terre d’Ange and the rest of Europe. Carey uses Phèdre’s sexuality to explore, well, sexual politics. As a woman in a patriarchal society, as a Servant of Naamah (the courtesans of Terre D’Ange function as devotees of that particular angel) in Terre d’Ange and abroad, and as a masochist in a society that has honed desire into an art, Phèdre faces a lot of complex issues. But perhaps my favorite issue is a very basic one—does being submissive sexually make you a weak person? The answer, obviously, is no, but the way Phèdre discovers this is a brilliant piece of self-discovery.

Phèdre, by the way, won my heart with her opening line: “Lest anyone should suppose that I am a cuckoo’s child, got on the wrong side of the blanket by lusty peasant stock and sold into indenture in a shortfallen season, I may say that I am House-born and reared in the Night Court proper, for all the good it did me” (17). Phèdre is clever, shrewd, insecure, beautiful, faithful, and determined; she’s a wonderful heroine to follow and a d’Angeline to the bone. The Phèdre who narrates the novel is a settled and possibly retired Phèdre, who occasionally remarks on how sorry she feels for those who haven’t seen the Night Court in full splendor, or how she didn’t know what this winter would bring. It adds a calmness to the novel that also serves to enrich Phèdre’s character; when she feels put out that her fellow pupil, Alcuin, has won the affections of their master, her older self reflects on how small a slight it is, in the vast scheme of things. I’m about to run into the same problem I did with The Sundering—there’s such a large and wonderful cast that I can’t give proper attention to everyone in this space. Suffice it to say that Hyacinthe, Phèdre’s Tsingano (Carey’s alternate Romani) best friend, is fantastic, and Joscelin, Phèdre’s warden, is even more so. But perhaps the most mysterious and, therefore, interesting character is Melisande, a scheming villainess that Phèdre is overwhelmingly attracted to, despite how Melisande treats her and the rest of the world.

Kushiel’s Dart is often described as “erotic fiction”, but, as I mentioned above, the sex is used to explore issues and show us Phèdre’s day job—it’s never gratuitous or thrown in for no reason. (…Outlander, I’m looking at you.) Carey renders these scenes deftly and warmly; while Phèdre’s masochism might make some liaisons hard to stomach for those of delicate constitutions, her sexuality is a part of her and her destiny as Kushiel’s Dart, that angel’s chosen representative. But Carey never romanticizes Phèdre’s life in this sphere—it takes going through hell and back for her to begin to understand Naamah and her teachings—and anyone else’s. Despite the d’Angeline tent of “love as thou wilt”, same-sex relationships are less kosher the closer to the monarchy you get. It would be so easy to make Terre d’Ange perfect, but Carey doesn’t; Phèdre is fiercely patriotic, but it’s a complex place. And complex is quite the word for this novel; I haven’t even touched on Alba, the sheer thrilling adventure of it all, or Phèdre’s Boys, one of the sweetest and funniest bits in it. I cannot wait to pick up Kushiel’s Chosen.

Bottom line: A novel that explores geopolitics as deftly as it does sexual politics, the complex Kushiel’s Dart boasts thrilling adventure and a well-rounded cast of characters with Phèdre, its winning heroine, at the forefront. A very good read.

I rented this book from the public library.

  • Carey, Jacqueline. Kushiel’s Dart. New York: Tor Books, 2001. Print.

15 thoughts on “Review: Kushiel’s Dart

  1. I am not a fan of sexual politics and first person narrators get on my nerves. That didn’t matter when I read Kushiel’s Dart because, as you said, Clare, the characters are so rich and intriguing. Reading any encounter between Phedre and Joscelin or Phedre and Melisande is incredible. I’ve read the first two books and, at some point, I should probably read the third. Carey is a true magician of words and ideas.

  2. I’ve had this on my list for longer than I care to admit. The political aspect appealed and I’m glad to hear the sex isn’t gratuitous either. While I really do like the Outlander series, some of the sex is just too much. You can skip pages and still find them going at it…

  3. You’ve made me want to reread this, stat. It’s not my favourite of Carey’s books (I believe the first and last in the Imriel series have that honour), but I’m almost certain I’ll enjoy it more the second time through. I’ve found such love for Phedre and Joscelin since I first made their acquaintance.

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