Kushiel’s Legacy series, Jacqueline Carey
It’s taken me a few days after finishing Jacqueline Carey’s second trilogy to process precisely how I feel about it. On its surface, it’s…fine. It follows the legacy of her original “Kushiel’s Dart” trilogy, and therefore is full of daring deeds, passionate romance, and travels and adventure that fling her characters across her fictional Europe and into the Middle East.
It’s all fascinating, as far as that sort of thing goes. The story is that Imriel de la Courcel, Prince of the Blood and foster-son of the main characters in Kushiel’s Dart, falls in love with the heir to the throne, who also happens to be his cousin (apparently this isn’t relevant, though he does make creepy comments regarding being turned on by their shared eyebrows). The problem is, Imriel has already promised to marry a princess of another realm to solidify some diplomatic ties, and besides, his mother tried to seize the throne in a violent coup about 15 years prior, so the people of this kingdom are pretty doubtful about his motives. The trilogy finds Imriel traveling through this world’s equivalent of England, Ireland, France, Northern Africa, Greece, Italy and even into Germany, Russia and (I think) Scandinavia to win the hand of his beloved.
Imriel is, like many romantic heroes, a man written by a woman for other women to fall in love with. He’s gorgeous, sensitive, damaged and broken, a figure — as his lover somewhat ironically calls him — “of great and terrible romance.” There are scars, brands, emotional damage, induced madness. He’s a valiant swordsman, a pretty impressive spy, practically a pirate, and has this vague twist of sadism that somehow makes him more attractive.
But despite it being crafted almost solely to please women, this trilogy ultimately fails them. Where Kushiel’s Dart flew by the Bechdel test with flying colors (sort of — Phedre talks a lot with the queen, with Imriel’s mother, with other women, mostly about covert operations and matters of state), this trilogy passes this test in the most lackluster of fashions. A few conversations here and there about dresses or something.
The first disappointment is the fact that Phedre, Imriel’s foster-mother, is a spy and diplomat in her own right throughout all of Kushiel’s Dart and the subsequent two novels. Though she is physically unprepossessing (beautiful, but tiny, and physical altercations are generally left to her consort, Joscelin), she does display remarkable strength, courage, cunning and perseverance throughout the series. She literally knows the name of God, and is treated by the queen as an equal.
In Imriel’s trilogy, however, she is reduced to a mother and an almost-wife, defined by her love for other men. She cries a lot, and spends one book missing and another completely out of her wits. The other women simply can’t take her place. Queen Ysandre is missing in action, except when she’s shrieking like a harpy or under a spell, a cousin is used mostly for exposition (she has dreams that come true, which is handy when you need to foreshadow a plot point). Imriel’s wife is a trope, the perfect innocent pregnant angel who dies too soon (whoops, spoilers) and teaches him to be a better person.
Sidonie, the love interest, is the worst, though. We’re constantly told she’s a bastion of strength, someone who will make an amazing queen one day, someone with a head for battle plans and an instinctive understanding of what her people need. The thing is, we don’t often see her talking to other people, and her only major speech to political figures in this trilogy involves her partially undressing.
She is constantly in need of rescue, falling prey to sorcery, to kidnapping, to rape. She’s slut-shamed near the middle of the last book after being raped, and while she rather admirably says she wants to kill her rapist herself, Imriel literally holds and guides her hand while she does it — almost as a gift, as though she couldn’t have done it alone. She spends a lot of time sitting and waiting for Imriel to get done doing whatever it is that he’s doing and come rescue her. She literally brands herself to show they’re together.
While Phedre is also marked by her sexuality, it’s important to note that it’s hers alone — her tattoo shows who she is and a pride in herself that gives her strength, rather than marking her as the property of a man from whom she draws strength. The reader knows from the beginning that while Phedre loves Joscelin, that’s not all of who she is. And while Phedre benefits from Joscelin’s aid, she almost never fully relies on it. He gets her out of a few scrapes, for sure, but she gets him out of just as many through her cleverness. They’re yin and yang; she’s the brains, compassion and determination, while he’s the brawn, loyalty and blind trust. Imriel and Sidonie do not work in the same way at all. There’s not a balance.
At the end, I’m left feeling like I did at the end of Outlander — as though it had so much potential, and just ended up being deeply flawed. I did enjoy it, in sort of a regressive way. It’s hard not to, especially when you’re faced with this character who is designed to appeal to women. He literally goes to the end of the earth for his lover, and it’s just nice, you know? It’s nice to think about that kind of love, and it’s hard not just give into that fantasy, pushing all thoughts of feminism and equality out of my pretty little head and worrying about all of it later.
I can’t help feeling like Carey missed a huge opportunity here. And while I think it’s okay to read a book like this and even admit to enjoying it a little bit, it’s also important to recognize the flaws and to discuss them. From an author who left me so excited about her portrayals of love and relationships and female power — the woman who coined the aphorisms, “All knowledge is worth having” and “That which yields is not weak” — I just expected more this time around.
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