‘Kushiel’s Dart’ by Jacqueline Carey
If Jane Lindskold, Phillipa Gregory and George R. R. Martin (and perhaps Alison Weir) all banded together to write a book, it might turn out like Kushiel’s Dart. But it could hardly be better than Jacqueline Carey’s work, which is suspenseful and compelling, somehow managing to encompass a huge plot of epic proportions while keeping the reader’s attention locked into each individual scene.
The premise of the work is that, in some alternate history, the blood of Yeshua ben Yosef (let’s assume that name is recognizable) mixed with the tears of Mary Magdalene and the earth, from which was wrought an angel named Elua. A number of angels descended from heaven to become Elua’s companions when he refused to ascend, and, in accordance with some apocryphal stories recognizable from Jewish folklore and the Old Testament, these angels mingled with humans and begot a race of nearly-divine people known as the D’Angeline, who have settled an area of Western Europe known as Terre d’Ange. (You will note that, apparently, the angels spoke French.)
One of these companions was called Namaah, and her story is that, in order to serve and protect Elua, she gave herself to a number of important people as a sexual plaything. But, in honor of her, prostitution is legal and even revered in this alternate medieval Europe, with codes and rules and regulations and various, um, flavors. “Love as thou wilt” is a key aphorism.
Enter Phedre, who, like her Greek namesake, has some desires generally considered non-traditional. Beating, forcing and otherwise harming a “Servant of Namaah” is a sacrilege in Terre d’Ange, but Phedre is somewhat of an exception — she is an anguisette, a person who genuinely gets pleasure from pain, and as such, the only one on the entire continent who can serve a certain type of client.
You are maybe already irritated, because at this point, Kushiel’s Dart just sounds like a fantasy world version of Fifty Shades of Grey. But this is the premise, not the whole story. Phedre eventually becomes a spy, ambassador, hostage and warrior — having sex with men for money or pleasure swiftly becomes incidental to the plot.
Kushiel’s Dart thoroughly explores questions of consent, by the way, in terms of sexual relationships that incorporate violence. While Phedre is held hostage at some point and has sex against her will, she generally gets to choose her terms, and her right to do so is clearly outlined. “That which yields is not weak” is Phedre’s mantra, and she shows over and over again that what is generally viewed as a curse actually makes her the only one strong enough to withstand certain events within the book.
It’s also nice that her culture allows her to fully own her sexuality, and give her “gift” to whomever she wants. As she is a professional, she can contract with whomever she would like and reject whomever she would like, setting her own terms. But she can choose not to contract and instead freely have sex with whomever without subsequent guilt. She is incredibly sexually empowered — usually, as the reader will see.
She is also a total badass. She speaks many, many languages, develops and carries off elaborate plots, and serves as an incredibly competent diplomat. The few times she wields herself sexually as a weapon to achieve her goals, it is with incredible effectiveness and with a clear understanding of her choice. And, at the peak of the novel, her success and ability to rise to a challenge has nothing to do with her sexual proclivities.
Phedre remains in control of herself and her destiny throughout this novel. She’s constantly rescuing the men she is with, and the novel definitely passes the Bechdel Test — there are several women in positions of power with whom Phedre interacts, politically and sexually, and very few of those interactions even reference men in passing. Her homeland is in danger — she doesn’t have a lot of time to indulge crushes or petty jealousies.
There might be a few racial things to be irritated by; first, pretty much everyone is white, and second, it’s pretty clear that Phedre considers the D’Angeline to be racially superior to everyone else. Since the D’Angeline are literally descended from heavenly beings, this makes sense, and it’s luckily limited to Phedre’s commenting on how the D’Angeline are prettier, not necessarily better. For example, the common tongue is the distinctly human Caerdicci, which I think is meant to be Latin, and Phedre finds the people of various other countries to be kind, fierce and generally wonderful in turns, when they are not trying to rape or imprison her (even sometimes when they are, to be frank).
Between the sweeping battle scenes, daring escapes, harrowing journeys and courtly intrigue, I’d be hard-pressed to find a single page of this book I didn’t enjoy. Jacqueline Carey’s work is now my go-to guilty pleasure read, and I cannot wait to tackle the next in the series.