Dear Ms. Carey,
Kushiel’s Dart, your fantasy novel, is the story of Phedre, who begins life in the Night Court of Terre D’Ange. The Night Court is peopled by prostitutes, known in this world as Servants of Naamah, the goddess of such things.
Terre D’Ange is modeled on Renaissance France, but with some substantial differences, including a religion worshipping an angel/god named Blessed Elua, believed to be a child of the messiah’s blood and the Magdelene’s tears, and Elua’s companions, angels who left Heaven to accompany Elua in his journey and peopled Terre D’Ange along the way.
Young Phedre is “a whore’s unwanted get” and at a very young age, she is sold to Cereus House, one of the Night Court Houses. Although she is brought up and trained there in her early years, the Dowayne who runs Ceresus House does not intend that Phedre remain there. Phedre has a blemish, a red mote in one of her eyes, which makes her flawed, and therefore she is not considered perfect enough for Cereus House.
The Dowayne plans to sell Phedre’s “marque” – her worth, which Phedre will eventually have to earn back and spend on having a design tattooed on her back. When the design (the physical marque) is complete, Phedre will be free, belonging only to herself, but until then she’ll have to work for the house or person to whom the Dowayne sells her marque.
Phedre slips away from Cereus House briefly and meets with a boy named Hyacinthe, whose mother is a fortune telling member of the Tsingani, a nation of travelers. Hyacinthe becomes Phedre’s only friend.
One day Phedre is called before a man named Anafiel Delaunay, who identifies the red mote in her eye as something other than a flaw. It is “Kushiel’s dart” the mark of Elua’s companion Kushiel, and it identifies Phedre as an anguissette, someone who experiences pain – not just sexual pain, but any kind of physical or emotional pain — as pleasure.
Delaunay purchases Phedre’s marque and when she is ten years old, she leaves Cereus House and comes to live with Delaunay as his pupil. Delaunay has another pupil, a beautiful boy named Alcuin. At Delaunay’s house, Phedre and Alcuin learn how to carefully observe, how to think, and also study languages and geography. They have a tutor who trains them in sexual arts as well and in their teens they become prostitute-spies for Delaunay.
Phedre does not know why Delaunay needs the information she learns from her patrons, but she strives to get it for him and sometimes succeeds. Although her patrons know she is Delaunay’s spy, they succumb to her sexual wiles to such a degree that they occasionally forget themselves.
The only one who does not is Melisande Sharizai, a peer of the realm and acquaintance of Delaunay’s whose purposes are different from his. Melisande is clever and seductive, always three steps ahead of Phedre, and Phedre can’t help but love her.
Throughout the early part of the book, a tragedy is foreshadowed, and when it finally comes, the course of Phedre’s life changes. Now Phedre must find a way not only to triumph over what has befallen her, but to save Terre D’Ange as well.
I started out Kushiel’s Dart having several issues with the first hundred or so pages of this long book. The prose, on the flowery side, took a lot of getting used to. My husband and I read the book aloud to each other and for a long while we stumbled over some of the phrasing, and weren’t sure how to pronounce many of the characters’ names.
In addition, the use of Hebrew names and phrases sounded odd and jarring to me as a native speaker of that language. For example at one point the opening phrase of Jewish prayers is used as a greeting by a Yeshuite (Christ-worshipping) character to another person. This phrase is (A) traditionally addressed to God, and I have never heard it used to address another person or spoken outside of prayers, and (B) is used in Jewish, not Christian prayers. So I was pulled out of the story by this usage, and by the part-Hebrew names.
Some aspects of the religion took getting used to, but I did very much appreciate that there was a religion, since it is something that lends depth to the worldbuilding.
Speaking of worldbuilding, I was confused about how the marque system worked. Phedre’s marque was purchased by Delaunay from Cereus House, and she had to earn the money to buy it back from him by paying to have it tattooed on her back. But Alcuin also had to buy his marque back and have it tattooed, yet Delaunay had never purchased Alcuin’s marque to begin with. Alcuin had been given into his care.
The first hundred or so pages also made for frustrating reading because Phedre was studying sex and spying but not actually engaging in these activities. Once Phedre began sleeping with her patrons, the story improved because she was finally spying, and because I appreciated that unlike in many other fantasy novels, where bedroom doors remain closed, here we got actual sex scenes.
A few of my problems with the book were more significant. I was unsure whether the anguissette premise made sense because wouldn’t an anguissette, as a young child, seek ways to inflict pain on herself that would be dangerous and threaten her survival? The first time she burned herself, would she know to cry out or move away from a flame? It wasn’t clear in the beginning of the book that she would.
I also felt that Alcuin and Phedre’s spying for Delaunay on patrons who knew them to be spies was a contrivance, because if such a scenario happened in real life, I would think that some of Delaunay’s enemies, knowing that Phedre and Alcuin were there to glean information from them, would be smart enough to use Alcuin and Phedre to feed false information back to Delaunay, and Delaunay would never know which information was false and which was true.
An additional issue for me was that Delaunay is portrayed as someone without moral blemishes, but when I looked at his actions in whoring Alcuin, I found that suspect. Phedre would have been a prostitute one way or the other, but Alcuin hated that work and it seemed highly unlikely to me that someone as perceptive and observant as Delaunay would not have figured it out.
Moreover, Delaunay had raised Alucin from early childhood, yet they end up becoming lovers, which struck me as more than a touch incestuous. For both these reasons I found Delaunay’s characterization inconsistent.
Finally, another thing that took away from my enjoyment of the first third or so of the book was the foreshadowing. The beginning of the book is chock full of phrases along the lines of (paraphrasing from memory) “If only I had known what was to come, but I did not.” After a while it felt repetitive and heavy-handed.
But by the one third point, the foreshadowed event took place, and something very bad happened, both to Phedre and to Terre D’Ange. This ended most of the foreshadowing and dissipated many of my other concerns as well.
Even better, at this point Phedre’s fate was intertwined with that of Terre D’Ange, and Phedre and the reader were no longer ignorant of the impact the knowledge in Phedre’s possession could have on the kingdom. The stakes rose as a result, and the book became far more compelling.
Kushiel’s Dart became a story filled with dark deeds, hatred, friendship, romantic love, adventure, battles, and more. The latter two thirds of the book were much, much better than the beginning and I was glad I had stuck with the book.
The worldbuilding was detailed and huge in scope, and Phedre, once her mettle was tested, grew into a heroine well worth rooting for – smart, sympathetic, determined and yet compassionate. There was also a romantic triangle with two men, both brave and loyal in their way, and obstacles facing both relationships. I wasn’t sure who to ship for, so I just rooted for Phedre.
I wish I could go into the later part of the book in more detail, since describing the thing I liked about it would balance out my criticisms, but I try to make it a policy not to discuss later sections so as not to spoil books for readers who have not read them.
Suffice to say instead that Kushiel’s Dart becomes a very exciting and moving novel, and one which, despite its shaky beginning, was well worth reading. B-.