John's Reviews > Kushiel's Dart

Kushiel's Dart by Jacqueline Carey
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Apr 19, 08

Read in November, 2004

I just seem to pick good things to read and watch! Maybe I don’t take enough chances in my selection of what to watch and read, only going with things that I’ve heard positive things about. In this case, I heard about Kushiel’s Dart in the [infrequently updated] weblog of one of my favorite fantasy writers, Steven Brust.

I’ve already warned you, this is going to be a positive review. The characters (if you’ve been reading my blog long, you know how important those are to me) are well-drawn, believable, and dynamic. The plotting is good, and it’s important that it is: this is a complex tale of political intrigue and plotting. More, it’s an epic story of a nation’s battle against internal and external forces.

And I like to think of this book as a great value. Fantasy novels, you may know if you have some experience with the genre, typically come in trilogies (or other lengths of series, but still in series). Kushiel’s Dart is virtually a trilogy all by itself. I had a mass market paperback edition, which clocked in at just over 900 pages. This may seem daunting, which is why I’m pitching it to you as a value. This is a compete story. Although there are additional books that follow after this one, this story is complete in and of itself, and if I never read the next books in the series (though I probably will), I could be satisfied. Kushiel’s Dart is a complete story with intense richness. Perhaps, indeed, its this richness which helps give it the sense of completion by the end. It would be far less praise-worthy if it was shorter, because the length is needed to draw such lifelike characters and allow them to live, to set up such an intricate plot, and to craft such a rich world.

A few words could profitably be said about the world in which it takes place. It’s our own world of the past… sort of. Certainly, the outlines of the map will look familiar to anyone who’s seen a map of Europe. And yet… this is a world in which at the crucifixion of Jeshua ben Josef (we’d call him Jesus), his blood mingled with the tears of “the Magdalene” and this co-mingling created an Angel named Elua, who was rejected by God and who, in turn, embraced the earth and its passions. Elua wandered the earth for a long time, seeking a place. At one point, while he was imprisoned, a woman named Namaah slept with the king to get him freed, and because of Namaah, prostitution and the courtesans who practice it are accepted—even honored. Elua, in fact, had a bunch of followers, and they create almost a pantheon of angels who founded the country of Terre d’Ange (in what is now France). They mingled with the humans there who accepted them, and a new, beautiful, amazing race came to people this land. Really, it’s this one change that has caused most of the other differences between our world and this one. All this is only to give you some small idea of the amount of detail in this novel. A whole, believable religion and culture are created and are fascinating in their own right. You’d have to read the novel yourself to get the whole of it.

But I also use that to introduce another aspect of the novel: sex. I mentioned Namaah and the place she carved out for prostitution of all sorts. The culture here—and, naturally enough, the novel itself—are very free with sex. Elua’s prime directive to his people was “love as thou wilt,” so sex and relationships of all sorts are well-tolerated, whether for love, for gain, for pleasure—whatever. I should add that this is essentially a Renaissance-era society, which means that this sexual freedom is still itself confined by the class-constraints of such a society. Nonetheless, there is considerable variety in the expressions of sex in this novel.

Our protagonist is Phèdre, a courtesan who is marked by a red spot in her eye known as Kushiel’s Dart (named for a member of the angel pantheon whose sexual pleasure is tied up with pain. In part, this marks her as a masochist, and an exploration of what this means in this character is central to the novel. Sadomasochism has never been my bag in the sack, which perhaps made this all the more fascinating to me. Though this certainly isn’t a pornographic novel, it is sexually graphic, which may be off-putting or appealing to readers, but is probably worth knowing regardless. It’s a significant part of the novel, but it certainly isn’t a novel about sex; this is just one aspect of a great, rich novel.

The writer Orson Scott Card, in his book How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy, delineates four types of novels: milieu, idea, character, and event. Milieu novels are primarily about showing and describing the world in which they’re set. Idea stories center around a quest to find something, to understand something: mystery stories, for instance. Character novels focus on the growth and psychology of the main character. Event novels are about some earth-shaking events, some save-the-world type stuff, in which something is wrong and needs to be fixed. While pretty well all novels involve aspects of each of these, there tends to be a preponderance of one or the other of these aspects. I guess with 900 pages, you can afford to be all of these novels at once. The world is shown to us in loving detail, with all the complexity of the real world. There are mysteries aplenty to be sorted out in the intrigues of plot and politics. All the characters are well-drawn, and several—especially Phèdre—are explored intimately. And as the novel progresses, we realize that our characters are inhabiting a world on the edge of disaster, in which internal betrayal and external scheming are threatening to destroy the narrator’s fascinating and beautiful culture. Maybe what made this such a satisfying novel, ultimately, is that it could be so many different things and be them all so well. Kushiel’s Dart is a big investment, but ultimately an excellent one.
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Comments (showing 1-4 of 4) (4 new)

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message 1: by Paula (new)

Paula I'm going to have to read this. My husband thought it was incredible, too.


John Here's the funny thing: I thought it was GREAT... I own the next two books in the series... and haven't even cracked them.

Can't explain it.


message 3: by Paula (new)

Paula DH also read the second; loved it, too.


Katrina This book and all the others after it are some of the best I've ever read. I wasn't too happy when I got to the sex part, but the characters made it easier to overlook that part. I especially love Phedre. She may be a courtesan, but she is so much more than that. The only thing that I don't like is that most of the words are based on French and so I'm reading along and have no idea how these words are pronounced.


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