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Jacqueline Carey – Kushiel’s Dart

August 27, 2012

94. Kushiel’s Dart by Jacqueline Carey (2001)
Kushiel, Book 1

Length: 902 pages
Genre: Epic Fantasy

Started: 12 August 2012
Finished: 20 August 2012

Where did it come from? Bookmooch.
Why do I have it? My notes say “Probably Memory’s or Meghan’s fault” but don’t cite a specific instance. I’d blame Clare for getting me hooked on Carey via Banewreaker, but Kushiel’s Dart was already on my TBR pile when that happened. Blame points for everyone!
How long has it been on my TBR pile? Since 14 August 2010.

“Love as thou wilt” is
dangerous when sex is bound
up with politics.

Summary: Phèdre was born the unwanted child of an ex-courtesan, and sold into indentured servitude at one of the pleasure houses of the city of Elua, the angel whose only commandment to his people was “Love as thou wilt.” But Phèdre was born different, with a mote of scarlet in her otherwise dark eyes, marking her as one pierced by Kushiel’s Dart, and cursed – or blessed – to forever experience pain as pleasure. Her unique worth is recognized by Anafiel Delaunay, who purchases her marque, and in his household, she learns to observe and listen and think, as well as continuing her training in the arts of love. For Delaunay knows that as a true anguisette, Phèdre will have access to some of the most important nobles in Terre D’Ange, and Delaunay is willing to play the long game. But even his decades-long machinations may not be enough, and Phèdre will have to be willing to use everything he taught her, and everything she is, if she is to have a hope of averting a terrible disaster that threatens her beloved homeland.

Review: Oh my. It’s been a long time since I enjoyed a book as much as this. It’s been a long time since I was capslock-y excited about a book and raving about it to anyone who would listen. It’s also been a long time since I’ve read any epic fantasy, so this may be at least partly a case of returning to my favorite genre. But I think the larger part is that Carey is a phenomenal writer, and this book was so, so good. I don’t know that I’m even going to be able to coherently explain why I loved it so much, but I’ll give it a shot.

I loved the characters. I loved Phèdre: strong and self-confident yet fallible, loyal and smart and willing to make sacrifices. But more, I loved the characters Phèdre surrounds herself with: Delaunay and Alcuin and Hyacinthe and maybe especially Joscelin. Somehow they all crawled inside my heart within a few pages, and this book made me shed tears, more than once, on their behalves. I was somewhat less enamored of the minor characters, mostly because there were so damn many of them. This book has (and needs) a six-page Dramatis Personae, but what would have been a lot more helpful was a family tree of the royal and high noble families. It was easy to get confused, especially since much of the time, characters would be talked about in reference to various plots and schemes, but would appear on screen only briefly, if at all. I eventually got a handle on at least the broad strokes of Terre D’Ange’s political landscape, but a tenuous one, and I’m positive there were details and complexities that totally passed me by.

The geographical landscape was easier to get a handle on. Like Guy Gavriel Kay, Kushiel’s Dart is technically fantasy, but it’s only the smallest stone’s throw away from alternate history. Fantastical elements are few and far between, here; the worship of Elua and his Companions is a religion added on to, not replacing, those which actually exist, and apart from some fortune-telling, there’s only one plot point that I would brand as supernatural. I even hesitate to label it as a secondary-world fantasy; again, like Kay, the names are tweaked, but otherwise, it’s unmistakably medieval Europe. This book is epic, though, in scope as well as page number, but I rarely felt like we were just on a sightseeing tour, and none of the pages felt wasted.

Carey’s an amazing writer and prose stylist. I knew this from reading the Sundering duology, but it was confirmed here. Her prose is lush and descriptive and heartbreaking and amazing, and Phèdre’s voice had a unique period flair that gave the whole story flavor, but which remained easy to read. Her plot had more than enough twists and turns to keep me interested, and she plays upon the themes of love and loyalty and honor and sacrifice without ever harping on them. The pacing was a little inconsistent; the first half of the book, involving Phèdre’s training in Delaunay’s household, was very, very different from the latter half of the book. Both were equally interesting, but the shift in tone was rather abrupt. Also, in the last hundred or so pages, the plot shifts to more large-scale battles, and while Carey handles it well by keeping everything tightly bound to Phèdre’s perspective, that kind of thing will just never be my favorite subject to read about.

Overall, though, I just loved the pants off of this book. I think it’s misclassified as “dark fantasy”, since I didn’t find a lot of it particularly dark (it’s certainly not light fantasy either, but.) I also don’t know that I’d call it “erotic fantasy”; yes, Phèdre’s a courtesan by birth and by training, so yes, there are a number of fairly explicit (and non-vanilla) sex scenes, but there is also a lot (a lot!) else going on, and I never felt like the sex was the motivating force of the story. While there were a couple of minor issues for which I could ding this book (overabundance of characters, abrupt plotting shifts), I’d still probably rate it a 4.75. The fact that it managed to totally engross me during a period where I’ve otherwise been distractible and in a reading slump means that I’m giving it the benefit of the doubt: 5 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: Love it. Highly recommended. It’s obviously not for everyone; it is long, and dense, and epic. But it’s also beautiful and powerful and fascinating, and if you are a fan of epic fantasy and you haven’t read Carey yet, you are doing yourself a disservice. I can’t believe I waited as long as I did.

This Review on LibraryThing | This Book on LibraryThing | This Book on Amazon

Other Reviews: The Literary Omnivore, Medieval Bookworm, Pages of Julia and more at the Book Blogs Search Engine.
Have you reviewed this book? Leave a comment with the link and I’ll add it in.

First 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.

There are those who hold that there is a pattern to all that is said and done in this world, that no thing happens without reason nor out of time. As to that, I cannot speak, for I have seen too many threads cut short to believe it, but of a surety, I have seen too well the weft of my fate shuttled on the loom. If there is a pattern, I do not think there is anyone among us who can stand at a great enough distance to discern it; yet I will not say that it is not so. –p. 228

Vocab: (see the whole list)

  • p. 7: “She sat fixed in her chair, upright as a girl of seventeen, and her eyes were like gimlets, grey as steel.” – a small tool for boring holes, consisting of a shaft with a pointed screw at one end and a handle perpendicular to the shaft at the other.
  • p. 20: “No patron but left Cereus House cool and collected, having enjoyed a glass of wine or cordial; but then, no patron of Cereus House would come for leisure clothed in fustian.” – a stout fabric of cotton and flax.
  • p. 24: “With a last blossom to shape the finial at the nape of her neck, Suriah would have made her marque.” – a relatively small, ornamental, terminal feature at the top of a gable, pinnacle, etc.
  • p. 27: ““I do not say that the adepts of Valerian House are unskilled in the arts of algolagnia, Miriam, but how long has it been since they’ve had a true anguissette under their roof?”” – sexual pleasure derived from enduring or inflicting pain, as in masochism or sadism.
  • p. 48: “Such were the profundities that occupied my mind when, beneath the merry skirl of music, the slow beat of the tocsin began.” – a signal, especially of alarm, sounded on a bell or bells.
  • p. 78: “The last acolyte held up a measure of oil, and the priest dipped his fingers into it. Smearing chrism on my brow, he held my eyes.” – a consecrated oil, usually mixed with balsam or balsam and spices, used by certainchurches in various rites, as in baptism, confirmation, and the like.
  • p. 111: “Dishes came in an unceasing stream, soups and terrines followed by pigeon en daube, a rack of lamb, sallets and greens and a dish of white turnips whipped to a froth which everyone pronounced a delight of rustic sophistication, and all the while rivers of wine poured from chilled jugs into glasses only half-empty.” – a classic Provencal stew made with inexpensive meat braised in wine, vegetables, garlic, and herbes de Provence; salads with leafy greens, an assortment of herbs, hardboiled eggs, almonds, and capers.
  • p. 113: “To get to the lees, of course, one must drink what is poured, and although I had been prudent in my drinking, I felt it warm my blood as I emptied my cup.” – the sediment of wine in the barrel.
  • p. 219: “The priests and priestesses of Azza wore saffron tunics with the crimson clamys, or half-cloak, fastened with bronze brooches.” – a short mantle fastened at the shoulder, worn by men in ancient Greece.
  • p. 281: “A burnouse of L’Envers purple shrouded his face, and instead of a doublet, he wore loose robes over his breeches, with a long, flowing coat.” – a long hooded cloak woven of wool in one piece; worn by Arabs and Moors.
  • p. 672: ““Oh, he can speak,” Grainne said contemptuously, tossing her red-gold hair, “and speak and speak, until the brehons cover their ears and beg him to cease!”” – Irish term for judges and lawyers.

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14 Comments leave one →
  1. August 27, 2012 12:48 pm

    I am looking to be engrossed and I have Kushiel’s Dart in my house. I am so so glad it’s a book that kept you engaged, I guess that means I will have to read it after Clash Of Kings.

    Love the enthusiasm in your review!

    • August 29, 2012 10:11 am

      April – Ooooh, I think you are going to love it. And it will be an interesting contrast to Martin – they’re similar in a lot of ways, but very, very different in others (namely gender politics).

  2. August 27, 2012 1:01 pm

    I am thrilled that you loved this book! It has been far too long since I’ve read this series myself but I so well remember how much I fell in love with it and your quotes remind me of how I adore Carey’s writing.

    Also, I love Joscelin. One of my favorite characters of all-time. Unquestionably.

    • August 29, 2012 10:15 am

      Meghan – I was sort of surprised at how much I wound up loving Joscelin by the end, given that I was sort of indifferent to him when he was first introduced. Although I shouldn’t have been surprised… loyalty is a huge draw for me, and Joscelin’s got that in spades.

  3. August 27, 2012 5:25 pm

    I discovered this book lying on a coffee table during my senior year of college, and it reminded me why I loved reading for fun in the first place. If you enjoyed this one, you’ll probably like the next five books in the series. The third trilogy isn’t worth bothering with though.

    • August 29, 2012 10:16 am

      Grace – That’s great… although I wonder about whoever left it on the coffee table in the first place! :)

  4. Erika permalink
    August 27, 2012 5:50 pm

    LOVED THIS BOOK, too. For some reason, though, I have been unable to make my way through the second in the series. I pick it up and put it down… this has been going on for four years now.

    • August 29, 2012 10:17 am

      Erika – Hmm, that’s strange. Maybe you’re just never in the right mood?

  5. September 6, 2012 2:16 am

    Awesome review! The Man of the House has been annoying me with this series ever since the first book came out and I still haven’t read it. I’ll be curious to see how you feel the other books compare to this one.

    • September 13, 2012 3:00 pm

      kay – You should! It’s so good! (So is the second one; the third one is top of the pile once I get through a few review copies.)

  6. September 13, 2012 12:06 am

    Aaahhh, I love this book. Love it so much that I’ve been paralyzed to read the next one because I’m afraid I won’t like it as well. (I’m such a weirdo.)

    • September 13, 2012 3:01 pm

      Elizabeth – I read the second one recently, and it’s almost just maybe a squidge off as good. But there are people out there who like the second one even better, too.

  7. November 11, 2012 5:31 pm

    I have worn 2.5 books of this title out with re-reading. Both my husband and I love this book and the subsequent books in the series. Great review.


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