‘Kushiel’s Chosen’ by Jacqueline Carey
We can all agree that I am a big fat nerd for reading Kushiel’s Chosen. This series is practically a byword for geekdom — a fantasy series that incorporates angels, alterna-medieval politics, espionage and S&M. There are pirates, courtesans, dashing warrior-priests who have sworn (and forsworn) vows of chastity, women with startling beauty and unique eyes, and plots to overthrow a kingdom’s rightful rulers.
In short, it’s pretty much as amazing as it sounds.
There’s a lot going on in Kushiel’s Chosen, but I’d just come off a spate of YA fiction, and the main theme that stuck with me was the relationship between Phedre and Joscelin. Spoiler — at the end of Kushiel’s Dart, these two crazy kids finally admit they’re in love and they bop off to Phedre’s newly-discovered country estate, where presumably they live very happily for a period of several months and, for lack of a better term, boink like bunnies.
However. Then Phedre decides she needs to re-enter Naamah’s service, i.e., take “patrons” again. This is highly consistent with her character — she genuinely enjoys her work, has affection for many of her patrons, and satisfies her own needs through her service. She views her work as a vocation, a calling, something she was uniquely created to do.
Naturally, Joscelin has a problem with this. There’s a very dramatic point where he sulks off to conduct a vigil in the rain for hours, while Phedre wanders around generally rolling her eyes and explaining to her bodyguards that she can’t possibly be expected to knock any sort of sense into Joscelin’s thick skull. There’s a lot of guilt and misunderstanding and general awfulness that results in Phedre and Joscelin being separated.
What separates their relationship from most in fiction is that neither of them are being asked to choose between two lovers. There’s not a blond and a dark-haired man, one brooding and one not, vying for affection. Phedre’s choice is truly between Joscelin and herself, something she views as central to her identity. Her feelings for Melisande, though overwhelming at times, have nothing to do with love — she recognizes that her attraction for Melisande is driven by her sexual desires, and her feeling that she was created to serve certain sexual proclivities. Melisande represents both the god Phedre serves and her own identity. She’s the Shadow, where Joscelin is the Animus.
It’s also worth noting that neither of them ever states that they can’t live without the other. They want to be together, they don’t want to be separated, and it’s clear to the reader that they are better together — an indomitable team. But Phedre and Joscelin are incredibly strong, complete people on their own. There’s none of the threatening death or destruction or whatever else if they can’t be together that characterizes so much romance. If one of them were to die, or if Joscelin were to decide he couldn’t be with Phedre…the other would move on, sadder, grieving, perhaps lesser, but eventually moving forward despite that loss.
There’s also never a question of whether Phedre loves Joscelin or not; it’s whether her love for him is worth compromising herself for, and if so, how much. And she doesn’t have a lot of time to think about it, since she’s running for her life through much of this book.
Joscelin faces a similar choice. He’s already forsworn several of his vows for Phedre, and informs her bluntly of the impact on his psyche — he’s not even sure who he is anymore. He knows he loves her, but he also feels called to help a marginalized group of people (known as the Yeshuites), perhaps to achieve redemption. He is not my favorite character, but I appreciate his desire to dedicate himself to a worthy cause when he’s not sure where else to turn.
He redeems himself in the end, anyway. His ability to admit he was wrong enables Phedre to meet him halfway, and their entire reconciliation is imbued with a maturity I don’t often see in other novels. Their relationship is full of pretty much everything you would want: chemistry, devotion, and a pragmatic view of what it actually is going to take in order for their relationship to work for both of them.
Of course, all of this is largely beside the point, as most of Phedre’s adventures involve her and only her. She’s usually surrounded by men, but they typically are not required to rescue her. She’s almost pushed to her death by a would-be rescuer, in fact, and betrayed several times by men she thought she could trust. There’s an army at one point that Phedre commands whose numbers are required, and Joscelin is required for physical strength at one crucial moment. However, the elaborate plots, diplomacy and long-term politicking Phedre masterminds ultimately save the day.