Kushiel’s Avatar by Jacqueline Carey

January 20, 2016 at 2:08 pm Leave a comment

Kushiel's_AvatarIn many ways, this is the best of the first three books of Jacqueline Carey’s “Kushiel’s Legacy” series. It somehow manages to build off of the first two books without being annoyingly nostalgic, and while introducing new developments and difficulties without seeming cliched or contrived.

For those of you who haven’t been keeping up, the series can be summarized as such: In an alternative medieval world where all of the French people are actually descended from angels, a woman named Phedre is born in a brothel who is marked by a red spot (or “mote,” as Carey insists on calling it) in one of her eyes. This mark signifies she’s a chosen of Kushiel, an angel of punishment and mercy, and she is eventually adopted by a nobleman, trained as a spy, and dashes off saving the world on far-flung adventures. In this, she’s accompanied by a man who originally swore to remain a celibate warrior-priest, but who forswore most of his vows in favor of becoming her consort and also bodyguard.

I know, I know. And the reason this series isn’t taken more seriously is because there’s a lot of sex, a lot of which involves whips and wheels and other toys, due to Phedre’s unique affinity for submission. But usually, sex is beside the point — one of the “gods” Phedre serves is revered for giving up her body as a means to a noble end, and that’s Phedre’s m.o. as well.

In this case, the larger cause is rescuing the son of a former patron who happens to be third in line to the throne of Phedre’s country. The son has been raised in obscurity for 10 years until he is snatched from goat-herding duties (I know) and sold into slavery. Phedre, bound by her compassion for this patron and the promise of freeing one of her oldest friends from a curse, agrees to so in search of the boy. In the process, she searches (from what I can tell) the entire Middle East and most of North Africa, in search of both the boy and the Name of God.

This book asks some of the biggest questions of the series. In previous works, a lot of emphasis was placed on love and loyalty — what does loyalty mean, exactly, when it can’t be defined by sexual fidelity? If two people truly love one another, how far can loyalty be pressed before it breaks? And, at the end of the day, who has earned undying loyalty?

Those questions are asked here, as well, but an additional emphasis is placed on compassion, and how compassion fits into the larger picture. Phedre is no longer in love with her former patron, but the compassion she feels compels her to find the boy and bring him home safely. The compassion she feels for her cursed friend has a tinge of old love in it, as well, but it’s ultimately compassion that drives her.

It’s a different kind of love from her consort Joscelin’s — she is able to look at someone completely and utterly flawed and find a reason for compassion and mercy, much like Kushiel, the angel who has marked her. Joscelin, on the other hand, is more driven by devotion, making all of his decisions based around the safety of the person he loves. Phedre just loves everyone, mostly, in different ways.

This compassion also marks the line in this book between painful pleasure and plain old rape (oh yeah — this book does contain rape and sexual violence). The line in Phedre’s case might appear to blur, as her body clearly responds sexually to violence, but there is a difference. All of Phedre’s patrons have compassion for her, as she does for them, choosing to give herself for her patron’s pleasure. The compassion comes into play regarding the issues of consent — Phedre knows, when she chooses a patron, that she can make that person stop at any time. That’s not true of other situations in which she finds herself.

It’s also fascinating to see the evolution of Phedre and Joscelin’s relationship. It is so, so satisfying to see these two together without the question of whether they’re going to make it or not. I mean, sure, there are some tough moments — but their relationship is as solid as can be, thanks (mostly, I think) to Joscelin’s stalwart belief that his vocation is to be Phedre’s Perfect Companion.

Overall, a highly satisfying conclusion to what has been an enjoyable series. Kushiel’s Justice is up next for me, so we’ll see how the second trilogy set in Terre D’Ange plays out.

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Entry filed under: Fantasy. Tags: , , , .

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