Undoubtedly, if you’ve been in any of the recommendation request posts in the RFS Facebook group, you’ve heard of Kushiel’s Dart by Jacqueline Carey, and for good reason. In case you haven’t heard of it, let me give you a treat because this week I have the pleasure of reviewing it. I’ll try to keep my review from spoiling the entire story, but give you enough to whet your appetite about it.
Kushiel’s Dart came out in 2001, at a time when I was bright eyed and college bound for the first time. I grew up on fantasy books like Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern books and Patricia C. Wrede’s Enchanted Forest series, with a smattering of Piers Anthony’s Xanth novels as companions. I love these stories, but I eventually wandered away from the genre as a whole because the books were satisfying in their adventures but didn’t give me a real sense of fulfillment. Part of that had to do with the stations and genders of the protagonists, but the most glaring lack was that the emotional journey in the books was often boiled down to the bare necessities to augment the fantasy or adventure plot, and I wasn’t given enough interaction between the leads for the romantic aspects to seem realistic. I understood having the sexy bits behind closed doors or faded out, but it often felt like the sweet bits were being locked away as well.
So I came to the purchase of Kushiel’s Dart on a whim, needing something to distract me from the frustrations of freshman year, and was rewarded with a love for a genre I hadn’t even realized existed. As RFS defines the terms fantasy romance and romantic fantasy, Kushiel’s Dart is in the romantic fantasy category, meaning that there is a romantic subplot that plays a significant role in the novel. (For a more in-depth discussion of the two genres, check out the blog posts: “The Place of Romantic Fantasy,” and “Falling In Love With Fantasy Romance.”)
Kushiel’s Dart is the first book of Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Legacy series, and also the first of the trilogy about Phèdre no Delaunay.
The book begins with Phèdre telling the tale of her birth and departure from her parents. This serves to explain several of the important aspects of Jacqueline Carey’s fictional world, which is what I like to call a not-Europe, in that the landmasses on the map are familiar but the names of the countries are changed. You learn at once that the D’Angelines of Terre d’Ange are known for and value beauty, that there is an acknowledged and non-stigmatized system of sexual companionship known as being a Servant of Naamah, that the Night Court (or Court of Night Blooming Flowers) is an esteemed system of brothels, and that Phèdre is the child of a former Servant of Naamah who went on to marry a merchant’s son with questionable business acumen.
A Little Background on Terre D’Ange
With this book, it’s hard to balance a review between plot and worldbuilding, so allow me to interject some explanation here.
According to D’Angeline lore, the head of their pantheon of gods, Blessed Elua, was an angel conceived by Yeshua ben Yosef, the son of the One God, and Magdelene at the crucifixion. The story of Elua’s conception is told to a very young Phèdre, and makes reference to Magdelene’s tears and Yeshua’s blood, and that it was from this union that “the grieving earth engendered her most precious son,” which is a bit confusing. But the salient point is that Elua is the One God’s angelic, half-mortal grandson. Elua was scorned by the One God and Yeshua’s followers for his mortal conception and his open beliefs regarding love. (Blessed Elua’s slogan is Love as thou wilt, which is the basis of the D’Angeline faith.) As he wanders, the tale of his persecutions reaches heaven, and some of the hierarchy of the One God’s angels feel compassion for him and flout the will of the One God and come to earth to become Elua’s Companions. Even with a retinue of angels, Elua isn’t welcomed to stay anywhere, so he spends a long while as a nomad.
Terre d’Ange is the land where Elua and his Companions were finally welcomed. Not only do D’Angelines worship Blessed Elua and his Companions, they are also said to be their descendants. (Elua and most of his Companions practice what he preaches.) Among the Companions, Naamah, the elder sister, is said to have lain with strangers in the street for coin to keep Elua and the Companions fed. It is from her sacrifice that Naamah’s Service derives, and those who take up Naamah’s Service are called, appropriately, Servants of Naamah. They pledge themselves until they can make their mark – a full back tattoo that supposedly originates in the marks Naamah herself would have acquired from bedding people against unforgiving surfaces – in stages as they ply their trade. Patrons can leave gifts above the price they pay for the service, and from there come the funds to pay the tattooist to fill out the mark. Most Servants of Naamah within the City of Elua (the capital of Terre d’Ange) choose to operate within the Night Court, where there are contracts and safeguards and standards. The Night Court is made up of thirteen houses that all cater to a particular aesthetic both visually and in terms of sexual desire.
The Fate of a Child: “A Whore’s Unwanted Get”
As Phèdre tells it, her parents probably intended to apprentice her into the Night Court, and thus she could pay for her own upkeep and eventually they would be given a portion of her income, but the plan hits a fatal snag because both by D’Angeline and Night Court standards, Phèdre is flawed. She was born with a scarlet mote in her left eye, and that imperfection makes her unfit for service. Her parents, who she explains have more love for each other than sense, failed to make profit from a trading caravan and desperately need money enough to survive. Her father is the least capable of the trader’s sons, so though the trader has offered them a second chance, it comes with a price. They must back the goods with their own coin. As Phèdre’s father is too proud to share his wife’s talents to earn coin to make up the difference, and without Phèdre’s entry into the Night Court they are in dire straits. In desperation, her mother turns to the first house, Cereus House, for a way out. You get, in Jacqueline Carey’s beautiful prose, the scene thusly:
I remember standing in the courtyard upon marble flagstones, holding my mother’s hand as she stammered forth her plight. The advent of true love, the elopement, her own Dowayne’s decree, the failure of the caravan and my grandfather’s bargain. I remember how she spoke of my father still with love and admiration, sure that the next purse, the next sojourn, would make his fortune. I remember how she cited, voice bold and trembling, her years of service, the exhortation of Blessed Elua: Love as thou wilt. And I remember, at last, how the fountain of her voice ran dry, and the Dowayne moved one hand. Not lifted, not quite; a pair of fingers, perhaps, laden with rings.
“Bring the child here.”
So we approached the chair, my mother trembling and I oddly fearless, as children are wont to be at the least apt of times. The Dowayne lifted my chin with one ring-laden finger and took survey of my features.
Did a flicker of something, some uncertainty, cross her mien when her gaze fell on my left eye? Even now, I am not sure; and if it did, it passed swiftly. She withdrew her hand and returned her gaze to my mother, stern and abiding.
“Jehan spoke truly,” she said. “The child is unfit to serve the Thirteen Houses. Yet she is comely, and being raised to the Court, may fetch a considerable bond price. In recognition of your years of service, I will make you this offer.”
(Kushiel’s Dart, page 7-8)
Kushiel’s Dart is told in first person, with a limited omniscience. The Phèdre narrating the story is a much older version than the Phèdre in the action of the story, so logically, I know that she’ll overcome this, but the feels when the Dowayne of Cereus House goes on to name Phèdre “a whore’s unwanted get” aren’t lessened by knowing she carries on. Phèdre’s situation feels so real to me that I choke up every time I read that scene.
An Imperfection Turned Mark of Destiny: “I remember the moment when I discovered pain.”
The second chapter of the book, which is quite short, begins thusly. And this gives the first glimpse of Phèdre’s story with her attraction to pain. She scores her hand with a pin and is caught enjoying the pain of it by the Dowayne, who starts to send her off to Valerian House, where they specialize in that sort of fascination, but stops herself. The Dowayne is a shrewd one, and has an inkling that there is more to Phèdre than just her parentage. She sends for Anafiel Delaunay, who is not a member of the Night Court, but something of a noble and a scholar.
Kushiel’s Dart is not a fantasy book containing magic, exactly, but there are moments of divine guidance and intervention. Delaunay recognizes instantly that the scarlet mote in Phèdre’s eye is not a mark of imperfection, but the mark of the god Kushiel, who was a bestower of punishments, and whose followers have a special relationship with the experience of pain. The scarlet mote in her eye is the Kushiel’s dart of the title. Phèdre also feels Kushiel’s call to action on more than one occasion, and her tolerance for pain helps her to carry out Kushiel’s wishes. What’s more, Phèdre’s pleasure in pain is not common, but the trait of an anguissette. Delaunay, after giving a name to her gifts, buys her mark so that once she has reached the age of ten she will join his household as one of his apprentices.
From here the story grows into a masterfully crafted, War of the Roses style political intrigue. Delaunay is loyal to the main royal house of Terre d’Ange, the de la Courcels, and his two apprentices – Phèdre and a lad named Alcuin, who is, honestly, too pure for words – are his tools for securing the line of succession in favor of Ysandre de la Courcel (who happens to be the daughter of his former lover, the late Crown Prince). He seeks to accomplish this by using the pair of his apprentices, who pledge to become Servants of Naamah in an independent fashion, as honey pots.
Having started and put down a lot of books with political intrigue, Kushiel’s Dart might have died on my endless TBR pile at this point, because considerable time is spent on Phèdre and Alcuin’s apprenticeship in which they are learning to observe and think, which is great and makes a case for the dramatis personae section in the front of the book, but also contains a lot of details about the political movers and shakers of Terre d’Ange. That the book did not molder in the annals of my college shelves or become a very thick table leg replacement is where credit is due to Jacqueline Carey’s gorgeous prose, lush worldbuilding, and Phèdre’s relatable narration. That’s what kept me going through all ninety-five chapters of the book. Alongside Phèdre I fell in love with Delaunay, wept at his misfortune, was frustrated with not being told the aim of his schemes, and despite my own tastes in intimacy, I found myself looking forward to Phèdre’s eventual assignations.
ABOUT THOSE ASSIGNATIONS
You get a hint early in the book that Phèdre’s not going to be a vanilla-sex sort of romance heroine. Being an anguissette means that it is in Phèdre’s nature to derive pleasure from pain, but during her apprenticeship we slog through what Phèdre calls the “dumb torment of virginity.” In chapter fourteen we are further educated about what sexploits we can look forward to as, alongside Phèdre, we journey to Valerian house and are introduced to “the tools of algolania,” or the implements of pain we can expect her clients to use on her. She’s somewhat familiar with most of them, at least in an academic fashion, but she is nonetheless excited by the show and tell. For someone on the outside of these desires, it was nice to be introduced to the ways of Phèdre’s art. The sex scenes themselves are handled as masterfully as the rest of the prose in the novel, without an excess of detail but with a true connection to Phèdre’s feelings in these moments. Her experiences and pleasure are vividly portrayed. So, while I couldn’t sympathize with her excitement over the specifics of her assignations, I was on the edge of my seat because she was going to experience what she’d been craving for chapters upon chapters. That I could understand, and Phèdre’s fulfillment makes the read that much better.
Piece by piece, assignation by assignation, we move through the story, and along the way we meet Melisande Shahrizai. If Delaunay is Sherlock, with an immense intellect, a keen eye for detail, and a mission for the greater good (as he sees it), then Melisande is his Moriarty in the sense that the two of them are equally clever and motivated towards their own goals. Melisande is beautiful, dangerous, and a noble of Kushiel’s line, which makes her a flame to Phèdre’s moth. Kushiel’s chosen and a scion of Kushiel’s line have an undeniable chemistry between them that could make them perfect for each other, but while Melisande appreciates Phèdre as a singular creature, they are not entirely on the same side. Melisande has as many schemes as Delaunay, and both are playing a very long game with the succession of Terre d’Ange as the prize. While Delaunay seeks to secure Ysandre de la Courcel, it takes the whole book to learn Melisande’s true aim, and she damn near razes the country in pursuit of it. I enjoy Melisande for her ruthless ambition and her intelligence. Like so many of the characters in the novel, she’s real, vibrant, and alluring enough that even I can understand Phèdre’s instant infatuation with her.
As with all good stories involving political intrigue, the tête-à-tête regarding the succession involves a rather stunning betrayal, and as our narrator and protagonist, Phèdre is caught in the middle of it, finding herself shipped off to the barbarians of Skaldia in chapter thirty-nine. She has the good fortune not to be sent alone, which brings me to one of my favorite things about this novel.
I’ve been saving possibly the best part of this story, because Joscelin Verreuil is probably every reader’s best fictional boyfriend, and he deserves to be done justice. If you’re wondering what I mean, I think a case could be made that Joscelin is to romantic fantasy what Mr. Darcy is to regency romance.
How? Well, let’s start with how he enters our story.
As much as they are Delaunay’s apprentices, Alcuin and Phèdre are also part of Delaunay’s household and, despite the brewing adoration in them for their master, they are like family to him. Delaunay is a veteran soldier (along with being a poet and a nobleman), but it isn’t his station to escort them to their every appointment, so he keeps an unofficial man-at-arms in his household for that purpose. We see a glimpse of the danger he has set his apprentices to courting when Alcuin comes riding pell-mell back from an assignation on horseback after his carriage was attacked and the man-at-arms, Guy, perishes facing off against the attackers to defend Alcuin’s escape.
Guy is an older, chaperone-type figure during Phèdre’s younger years in the household. He doesn’t spend much time talking in the book. Like everyone else in Delaunay’s household, he knows when to keep his mouth shut, and he’s got a few secrets in his past. The only real tidbit we’re given is one that Phèdre discovers during the torment of her virginity, that Guy is a disgraced Cassiline Brother.
Much like Naamah and Kushiel, Cassiel was one of Eula’s Companions, and he alone among them remained chaste, disdaining the open, loving ways of the others. The Cassiline Brotherhood are not descendents of Cassiel, but an order of bodyguards pledged from noble houses that are considered to be the ultimate protectors. Usually they are only in service to those born of the Great Houses (i.e., nobility). They dress in grey and carry two daggers and a sword, though mostly they fight with unmatched skill with the two daggers, as their swords are only drawn to kill. But it’s rare for them to draw their swords. Cassilines won’t even draw their daggers except in defense of their charges.
Delaunay secures a Cassiline to replace Guy in accompanying Phèdre on her missions, which she thinks a disaster in the making as she anticipates a prudishly chaste, old, wrinkled guardian that will be off-putting and unsuitable.
What she gets is Joscelin Verreuil.
The young man standing in the shadows behind me bowed in the traditional manner of the Cassiline Brotherhood, hands crossed before him at chest level. Warm sunlight gleamed on the steel of his vambraces and the chain-mail that gauntleted the backs of his hands. His twin daggers hung low on his belt and the cruciform hilt of his sword, always worn at the back, rose above his shoulders. He straightened and met my eyes.
“Phèdre no Delaunay,” he said formally, “I am Joscelin Verreuil of the Cassiline Brotherhood. It is my privilege to attend.”
He neither looked nor sounded as though he meant it; I saw the line of his jaw harden as he closed his mouth on the words.
It was a beautiful mouth.
Indeed, there was very little about Joscelin Verreuil that was not beautiful. He had the old-fashioned, noble features of a provincial lord and the somber, ash-grey garb of a Cassiline Brother adorned a tall, well-proportioned form, like the statues of the old Hellene athletes. His eyes were a clear blue, the color of a summer sky, and his hair, caught back in a club at the nape of his neck, was the color of a wheatfield at harvesttime.
At this moment, his blue eyes considered me with ill-concealed dislike.Kushiel’s Dart, pg 254-255
Joscelin enters the story at a tumultuous time. Alcuin has made his mark, leaving Phèdre as the only active spy for Delaunay, and the waters she’s diving into are getting turbulent. A trained, chaste protector, Joscelin is affronted by her “service.” Phèdre equally resents Joscelin for his rigidity. But they are of a similar age, and he is assigned to be her protector at a time when she is becoming isolated from those she cares for by their shared mission. Their similar age and exclusion from Delaunay’s greatest secrets gives them common ground. He becomes a fixture in the household, and a steady companion to her, despite not having Phèdre’s training at political intrigue. There’s something of a role-reversal in their dynamic from the more standard male-warrior/female-damsel relationships in the fantasy I read prior to this book. Phèdre faces danger even without carrying a sword, and she lacks a sense of caution about her work. Joscelin, who is much more careful, is a good foil for her, and proves himself a stalwart companion when the chips are down.
What draws me to Joscelin is similar to what draws me to Phèdre. Despite his impressive skills with a sword, he’s not perfect. He messes up and needs help finding his way, and has some growing up to do when we meet him in the book, but he never stops trying and he never abandons Phèdre despite their differences and disagreements. And they have some serious disagreements along the way, but even to at the worst of them, he remains a constant in the turbulence she’s embroiled in.
“You don’t know.” He bowed his head, pressing the heels of his hands into his eyes, despairing. “You don’t understand. It has naught to do with thrones and crowns. Cassiel betrayed God because God Himself had forgotten the duty of love and abandoned Elua ben Yeshua to the whims of Fate. To the point of damnation and beyond, he is the Perfect Companion. If you are true, if you are true… I cannot abandon you, Phèdre nó Delaunay!”Kushiel’s Dart, page 388
The two of them are such a slow-burn, antagonists-to-lovers romance that I could write an entire epic saga in honor to it. They both support each other and grow to be capable individuals that fit together. There’s a lack of narrative focused on how they feel about each other, but with Jacqueline Carey’s gorgeous prose and Phèdre’s insightful narration, you know how close they grow without needing purple prose descriptions or long-winded confessions to explain it. And Carey doesn’t rush into their pairing, or ignore or avoid their individual truths or situations. Their affection for each other doesn’t magically erase the impediments to it – Phèdre remains a Servant of Naamah and Kushiel’s Chosen; Joscelin remains a Cassiline with his oaths. Joscelin can’t supply for all Phèdre’s sexual desires, and she can’t give them up for him. Likewise, there’s the pesky issue of his vow of celibacy to consider.
In another story this might lead to a relationship doomed for failure or only lasting a single novel, but the main tenet of the d’Angeline faith is Blessed Elua’s decree to “Love as thou wilt,” and thankfully their relationship proves that love will find a way despite the struggles it must endure. Their growth as a couple and the progression of their love make Phèdre and Joscelin one of my favorite literary couples.
LOVE AS THOU WILT
I can’t write this book review without further exploring the open-mindedness of Elua’s teachings. The acceptance of sexuality, desire, and love in this world (I would say book, but remember, this series continues on for more than just this one) are another reason I love it so. There’s an absence of shaming of desires in the book. Even Joscelin, who doesn’t agree with or understand Phèdre’s assignations or desires, comes across more like he’s asking “Are you sure the answer to this calamity is sex?” than throwing stones about how she finds her pleasure when the matter comes up. (Remember, he starts off a chaste guardian that errs towards restraint rather than passion.)
That D’Angelines keep certain things private, but don’t stigmatize an individual’s desires, has been refreshing to me since I first read this book almost twenty years ago, and remains a message that’s relevant today. I like that sort of inclusion in my fantasy stories, and in Kushiel’s Dart, Phèdre not only understands her desires, she expresses them, and isn’t rebuked for it. Because the narrative voice always makes me feel one with Phèdre when reading the book, that transfers a powerful feeling of validation to me as the reader.
It’s pretty obvious at this point that I love Phèdre’s story, and I love the emotional roller coaster it takes me on. But as a responsible reviewer, I can’t conclude without an honest assessment of a few potential distractions from the book’s glory.
Some Possible Cons…
I mentioned before the flavor of most of the sex in the book, which won’t be to everyone’s taste despite being handled tastefully. The book is also long, nine-hundred-and-one pages long, which puts the paperback in the category of self-defense brick. The story is gorgeously written, but with so much of it, I find that every time I read the book new details come to my attention. Also, there’s the pesky problem of not being able to put it down, and my poor wrists trying to hold open this mass-market paperbrick.
None of the above is reason not to pick the book up, as there’s so much to the story to enjoy, but you have been warned.
Now, because this review has been lengthy (and hopefully without too many spoilers), I’ll give a bit of a summary.
Kushiel’s Dart is the story of Phèdre, who was marked at birth by the god Kushiel in Terre d’Ange. This romantic epic fantasy:
- involves political intrigue;
- includes sexytimes in which pain brings the protagonist pleasure and sexytimes in which sex brings the protagonist pleasure;
- is told from the protagonist’s point of view in first person narration;
- has a well-detailed and fleshed out fantasy setting;
- has a bright and interesting cast of characters; and
- has a swoon-worthy, slow-burn, antagonists-to-lovers romance within it.
(Also, you could defend yourself in a dark alley with the paperback version.)
Did I miss your favorite part? Have you been in love with it as long as I have, or is this your first introduction to it? Let’s chat in the comments about it!
You can get your copy here.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Roz has a degree in both theater and comic books from different ends of the country, and has been telling stories since she was chasing fireflies barefoot at dusk and tormenting her cousins by enforcing a storyline on summer games of tag. She enjoys video games that rival epic sagas in length, writing books with heroines that require her to spar through her fight scenes with friends, and a good cup of tea.
Reach her at:
- Website: www.rpgarrett.com
- Amazon: www.amazon.com/author/rpgarrett
- Facebook: www.facebook.com/RozPGarrett
- Goodreads: www.goodreads.com/rpgarrett
No amount of coin will convince Belisare to use her magic, but that never stops her lover Gio from trying to change her mind.
With hard times thinning the ranks of her pack of mercenaries, Belisare doesn’t have a lot of options when it comes to romance, and even less on making the coin to keep them all going. Rather than spend her nights cold and alone, she’s hung on to her erstwhile lover, Gio. Rather than disband, she’s taken one last, desperate contract before winter to try and make ends meet.
When convincing the lads of the plan goes poorly and Gio shows up in her tent, Belisare is more than happy for a few hours of distraction. But are Gio’s nighttime attentions meant to help her unwind or are they yet another attempt at convincing her to use the magical ability she keeps firmly suppressed?
Appropriate for fans of KUSHIEL’S DART and OGLAF, the SHIELDSISTER series is for mature readers only, and is certainly NSFW.
Content Warning: Steamy love scenes, occasionally naughty language, and busty ladies in armor wielding swords. Intended for mature audiences.