REVIEW: Kushiel’s Dart by Jacqueline Carey
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-.
Don’t forget–you have five more books to read! The Kushiel’s Legacy series captivated me. I’m such a sucker for love conquering all and Carey’s worldbuilding is astounding. I recommend this series to anyone who likes romance and/or fantasy.
I just got this delivered in the mail, since it was recommended to me by a friend. Am too scared to read the review in full – shall come back and take a look when I’m done. Looking forward to it.
I’m with you all the way on this book, your loves and dislikes; are mine as well. While I don’t speak Hebrew, a couple of her religious termanology made me stop and think for a second too. While I did enjoy this novel generally, there were a couple of things I wasn’t over the moon about.
Yeah normally I love flowery prose but there were a few times I had to shake the cobwebs out of my head and really pay attention to the language since it’s so descriptive and poetic. Defintely not a book to lazily read!
My biggest problem over all was I think Carey got *too* involved with her poetic tone and just TOLD of things that were happening rather then showing. Particularly of Melisande, whom I was never quite enamoured with or understanding why everyone was so enamoured with because I felt like all we saw is the aftermath of her, rather then her *in* action if you see what I mean? I thought “Make me love her too Carey, so I can relate to Phaedre! All I want to do is shake her !” I understand a LOT of years are covered here and the book would be three books long if we covered all topics but then again…
Thanks for the review. I’ve been curious about the series for years. There are things about it that I think would appeal to me, but ultimately I’m not sure that I want to read about a masochist heroine.
So, they’re trained in the sexual arts while they’re still kids? or am I reading that wrong?
Phedre isn’t your typical masochist, though. As an anguissette, her masochism is physiological, not psychological (I don’t recall her experiencing pleasure along with non-physical pain, but it’s been years since I’ve read this so my memory might be failing me). I found the concept to be very interesting and Carey explores it fully. A phrase that comes up in the book is “that which yields is not always weak”, which is a good way to describe Phedre. She develops into an incredibly strong character.
Still, the masochism angle isn’t for everyone, so this would be a good book for the undecided to get at the library.
@courtship: If memory serves, they don’t actually see or study anything sexual until they’re sixteen. Each house of the Night Court is known for something different: one house is known for its courtesans’ great beauty, one for artists, one for mystics, etc, and the future courtesans study the non-sexual aspects of their house before they’re old enough to actually study sex.
@CourtneyLee: Actually, eight more books! There’s another trilogy after Imriel’s.
@CourtneyLee: Not sure how quickly we will get to the other five, but we may read them eventually. This book was very long and I tend to prefer new characters over familiar ones.
@sarah mayberry: Thanks. I hope you enjoy the book!
@Marumae: Agreed, the prose was sometimes so flowery that I found it distracting. It was a particular problem in the beginning. Either I got used to it after a while, or it improved later in the book. There was a lot of telling, but although Melisande could be infuriating, I actually understood her appeal to Phedre. She was so clever and as a Kusheline, she had the owner’s manual to Phedre’s anguissette aspect.
@Jennie: Ultimately, I actually found Phedre’s masochism one of the most interesting aspects of the book in that it was both the source of Phedre’s strength and of her vulnerability and she really struggles with it at certain points and embraces it at other points. I don’t want to spoil the book but there was a difference between Phedre as a Kushiel-marked anguissette and other masochists. This was also her connection to an angel-god and she was his instrument as much as she was her own person. At times this was a joy to her, at times a burden, and at other times the impetus for a difficult triumph.
I’ll respond to more comments later on.
I adore this series, and I think it’s an important read because Carey has influenced so many writers within the romance/erotica genre.
The prose is meant to be archaic–it’s set in a fantasy 18th century.
I loved all six of the Kushiel books. Not so crazy about the most recent three, however. I did find the first third of Kushiel’s Dart slow, but I could feel that it was the setup and I stuck with it, where I might not have with an author less skilled than Carey. Didn’t have the issues you did, though, Janet. I just thought it was slow, with a lot of background (understandable, because the world is so complex) and not enough action.
The whole “Love as thou wilt” theme that runs throughout all the Terre D’Ange books made me much more accepting of relationships outside what we in our society might consider the “norm.” Also, I had this idea that there was a trigger of an anguissette’s sexual needs that came with puberty, and as a child Phedre didn’t have those needs. Not sure now, though, a few years after reading this book, where I got that.
Sheesh. I mean Janine….
@CourtneyLee, Thanks for the explanation.
I am probably a hardliner about it, but I’ll skip this one. It’s the idea of a ten year old written into an erotic world. Ick.
I know, I know. It’s fantasy…
A lot of my friends love this series. I haven’t read it. I quickly became sick of being asked if my tattoo (which covers my back from nape to waist and predates the books) is an ode to it and just haven’t been able to bring myself to pick it up.
So Happy you read this! An amazing series! The depths of the world building is incredible and I adored all six I’ve read so far (I haven’t started on the ‘Naamah’ series yet).
I loved the relationship between Phedre and Joscelin, throughout the three books. Their loyalty to each other, Hyacinthe, and to Terre d’Ange was one of the beautiful things about this series.
@courtship: Well, it’s like this. Phedre’s mother sells her to Cereus House when she is four years old. Phedre doesn’t have sexual training there but she does pick up a lot of knowledge about sex from living there. She is mostly trained in exquisite etiquette there. At ten years old Phedre goes to live with Delaunay. She wants to be trained for actual sex by then, but Delaunay refuses to do this and only has her and Alcuin study geography, languages, and observe others for what they inadvertently reveal.
I’m not sure about this point but I think it’s around thirteen years old or so that Alucin and Phedre start learning the theory behind sex — things like sexual positions — out of a book in classes taught a former prostitute who married into the nobility. At age fourteen they officially dedicate themselves to be servants of Naamah, but they still aren’t allowed to have actual sex. They get to watch it done at one of the Houses though, and it’s portrayed as beautiful to Phedre. I believe the first time they have actual sex is on their sixteenth birthdays. By then Phedre is dying to experience it and it is nothing but pleasurable to her.
Personally, I did find all their exposure to sex at such a young age disturbing, but at the same time I really appreciated that sex was portrayed in a positive light and there was little bigotry in the world and none in the main characters toward others on the basis of their sexual preferences.
I love these books. Carey is a favorite author of mine, and her exploration of how the concept “Love as thou wilt” could form the basis of a society just fascinates me. The mythology she envisions is intricate, and I know a number of people who found the first book, in particular, a bit long and slow, but for me the first trilogy is some of the best fantasy I have ever read. The later books are also very readable, and they fascinate me with their different views of cultural norms about love, honor, and sexuality.
Personally I couldn’t enjoy this book at all. After around 700 or so pages I just put it down in frustration and never picked it up again. if I remember correctly it was mainly Phedre whom I hated (and for some reason her relationship with one of the men- some kind of monk?- made me uncomfortable), and I found the book boring. I do wonder though if maybe I was too young to appreciate it. All the praise i have heard for this book, and your review, kind of makes me want to read it again .
This is one of my favourite books of all time (and was my intro to BDSM when I was 16. Ahem.). True, the writing style is very love-it-or-hate-it and some of the concepts seems squicky when summarized, but I hope some of you will take a chance on it anyway. There is also a great romance plot.
Some of the later books didn’t work for me as much though, especially the new trilogy (the ones with “Namaah” in the title), which I find pretty cliched….
I’m not sure what “your typical masochist” is, and also, not clear on what you mean by “her masochism is physiological, not psychological.” So to clarify, my reading of the text was that Phedre was uniquely different from other masochists in Terre d’Ange in her connection to Kushiel. I also got the sense that pain, whether physical or emotional, was an aphrodisiac to Phedre, but that didn’t mean that she always welcomed it.
For example, when Phedre was sold into slavery to the Skaldi and became the bed slave of a couple of them, her emotional feelings of anguish and humiliation made the sex physically pleasurable and Phedre responsive, but this only made Phedre (just while she was a slave) hate this effect of Kushiel’s dart.
Agree with you there.
@Lucy V. Morgan: I have the sense that I might have enjoyed this book even more had I read it when it came out. I think it’s one of those books that was revolutionary at the time but has been imitated enough that it doesn’t stand out to quite the same degree that it used to.
I think it did that for me to some degree but I still felt troubled by the Alcuin/Delaunay relationship because Delaunay had raised Alcuin from around age three and was the closest thing to a father figure Alcuin had ever had.
Well, I definitely think puberty had an effect on Phedre but there was a scene that took place while Phedre was still at Cereus House, well before she hit puberty, where she stuck herself with a pin by mistake and then kept doing it on purpose because it gave her pleasure. It was this scene that made me question whether a child anguissette would have a strong enough sense of self-preservation to get through childhood unscathed.
@Isobel Carr: LOL!
@MarieC: Glad you enjoyed the review! I agree that loyalty was a central theme in the book and I thought it was among its more moving aspects.
I especially liked that Hyacinth and Joscelin remained on good terms even though they both had romantic feelings for Phedre.
END OF SPOILER
@SonomaLass: I wouldn’t go so far as to say I was fascinated with it but the “Love as thou wilt” philosophy/precept made for an interesting society.
@C: I don’t know how old you were when you read the books, but I can see how that might affect your reading. Then again, maybe this just isn’t a book you would hit it off with — sometimes that happens even with the most popular books, and that’s okay.
@AmyW: Good to know that about the new trilogy. I have had other people tell me that the first trilogy is the best. The romance was very romantic in the middle of the book but by the end, I wasn’t in love with the central couple’s relationship. It held my interest, but wasn’t swoon-worthy to me the way, say, the relationship in Megan Whalen Turner’s The King of Attolia is.
These are some of my favorite books of all time. Any book that can bring me to tears (as the 3rd in the series did) earns a place in my perma-keep shelf. I really liked the language (the anons and needs musts) and given that I have only a few Passover Seders’ worth of familiarity with Hebrew, none of that bothered me in these books. I think Melisande is one of the best villains ever written. As the books progress you get a lot more insight into her character and she is NOT a one-note villain by any means.
Interestingly enough my husband (who is not a fan of romance) really loved these books too. The world building and emotional heft of them along with the high-stakes danger really make for good reads. Like others have stated above the first 6 Terre D’Ange books are the best (2 trilogies). I never got quite so wrapped up in the Naamah books.
I adore this trilogy – so much so that I’ve avoided the other Terre D’Ange books out of fear they’ll disappoint me! Can someone who’s read them say if they live up to the first three books?
Naomi–I actually prefer the second trilogy to the first one. Imriel is one of my favourite characters in fiction, and since I did find Phedre to have a touch of Mary Sue, a character who was a little more self-deprecating was refreshing.
I confess that I haven’t read the third because I’m not all that interested in new characters. I liked the old ones too much, and didn’t want that world to move on [sob].
I’m with you, Lucy. Love the second trilogy almost better than the first. For some reason, the siege at Lucca is one of my favorite sequences in any book. I’ve only read the first book of the last trilogy and it wasn’t as good as the first 6, but still worth reading.
These books changed the way I look at fantasy novels and will always be my benchmark. I often tell people they’re like Lord of the Rings for women.
And it’s so true that the first two hundred pages or so are tough going, but the payoff is great.
@Lucy V. Morgan: Yes, I’m very attached to the original characters, another reason I’ve shied away from the new books. But Phedre does feature in Imriel’s trilogy, I think? Maybe I’ll dip my toe in…
I loved loved loved this book! But I read it when it was originally published years and years ago. At the time it was SO fresh and new (and like a previous poster mentioned) and it introduced me to BDSM…
@Janine: That’s right! I had forgotten the scene with the pin. And excellent point re “getting through childhood unscathed.” But Phedre does also have an amazing ability that goes with her god-given “dart” to heal her physical injuries and heal them swiftly. If not, there is no way she would survived any number of encounters in her trilogy. I mean, *no way*…
@Christine Rimmer: I don’t recall that happening more than once… she was watched closely after, IIRC. That was how they knew she was into pain…
@Christine Rimmer & @MrsJoseph: Agree re. the fast healing but with regard to her being watched closely, I guess what I’m saying is that it felt contrived to me for it to only happen once. If this is how a child experiences enjoyment, they are going to attempt to repeat the experience and try new and different ways to feel pain, IMO. I get that that didn’t happen in the story, but that was because the author decided that it shouldn’t. It’s the anguissette concept itself that seemed weak to me, particularly when it came to the anguissette’s childhood.
ETA: No one has mentioned the more significant contrivance IMO — why wouldn’t Melisande and other patrons who knew Phedre and Alcuin were spying for Delaunay feed Alcuin and Phedre false information to take back to Delaunay? I think spying can only work when those being spied upon aren’t aware of it.
@Janine: I’ll try not to spoil other parts of the books…
But (IIRC) the Servants of Naamah took oaths – like a lawyer or a priest or something – that everything was between the Servant and the Patron. IIRC, both Phedre and Alcuin feel the need to make penitence to Naamah for breaking this “rule.”
Also, you can’t forget the idea of how different the two (Phedre and Alcuin) were from each other and the types of passion they rose in people. Example is Phedre’s first patron: He KNEW she was there as a spy – but he couldn’t resist her AND he felt he was strong enough to never give anything away.
Please excuse the poor terminology – it’s been a while since I’ve read it.
I don’t recall this at all! Are you sure it’s there in the first book?
This I do remember but I also think it’s a golden opportunity for some of Delaunay’s enemies. Pretend to be totally overcome with passion and then spill out a “secret” that isn’t true. Just as Phedre was able to pick up on things in the heat of sex, at least some (even if not all) of her patrons should have been able to do the same. After all, the effect on pain on her was quite powerful and she was very young, so if she was able to pick up clues at that time, they should have been able to plant a seed or two of misinformation in her mind at the same time. That none of them even thought to try it is what I find contrived.
@Janine: Re your spying point, it’s been too long since I read those books for me to refute your point. That is, if it even is refutable. And I realize, I just…well, it didn’t matter to me, the various inconsistencies. I loved Carey’s world-building. I “bought” it. My subconscious kind of filled in the holes. If something didn’t completely work for me, I simply assumed I didn’t completely understand the “rules” of the world. To me, that’s great world-building, that the world is consistent enough, and rich and complex enough that I believe in it, even if it does have holes. That whole willing suspension of disbelief thing, I had it going on with the six Kushiel’s Legacy books. Within those six books, I was totally willing. But when I got to the Moiron cycle, the Naamah books…not so much.
@Christine Rimmer: I think that’s the definition of a great read. All book have holes, but when they cast a spell over us we don’t notice them. It sounds like this was the case for you. For me it was less so, especially in the first third of the book. In the latter two thirds I was much more sucked in but in the beginning, I kept noticing inconsistencies.
You know, I am not 100% sure! It’s been years and I devoured these books multiple times back to back. I do remember Alcuin praying to Naamah for forgiveness.
Re spying: I do see what you mean – but it was also a part of their religion. I thought of it as kind of the way people tried (and still do) ignore child abuse at the hands of a religious leader.
Re the other trilogies: I’ve already mentioned about how I feel about the Namaah books. As for the second trilogy (Kushiel’s Scion, Kushiel’s Justice and Kushiel’s Mercy), “Justice” I found painfully slow but “Mercy” absolutely blew me away. Something happens that I didn’t see coming at all and I thought was a pretty bold move. “Mercy” made that trilogy worth it on its own…now I want to reread it.
@MrsJoseph: IIRC Alcuin prayed for Naamah’s forgiveness because he entered her service without a true calling. He pretended (even to Delaunay and Phedre) that being a servant of Naamah was what he truly wanted but in fact he hated it.
That’s a really interesting take on the story that hadn’t occurred to me at all.
@Janine: You know, you’re probably right about the prayers…it’s been a while and I’m not as young as I used to be! ;-)
@Janine: Well, my favorite of Phedre’s books was Avatar. I think it’s just incredible how deep Carey went into darkness. And amazing how she brought it all out into light. I think Avatar and Mercy are my favorites of the six books I was totally in love with.
@Christine Rimmer: Thanks, that is good to know.
Good review, you covered off many of the points I had issues with, so its nice to know I was not alone. However I was unable to get beyond the first 100 or so pages. The prose was too luridly purple for me, and the language with the foreign words was to distracting. And the whole anguisette thing turned my stomach with the way she portrayed it. So I said the 8 Deadly Words and returned it to the library.
Tried to read Banewreaker and had the same issue with her prose. So many people love these books and yet I disliked it so very much. Not quite as much as I hated Cecilia Dart-Thorntons series tho :)
@BlueRose: Truthfully, I had to force myself to keep reading at first until I got used to the prose. If I hadn’t known so many people who loved this series I would probably have given up early on.