Kushiel’s Dart begins with a map, six pages of dramatis personae, and an epic ton of world-building. As it goes in the book, so goes my review.
Where are we? Well, this map looks an awful lot like Europe, but the names are a little off. Instead of Spain, we have Aragon. Islands looking suspiciously like Ireland and England are Eire and Alba. We have Skaldia to the east where Germany was, and Caerdicca Unitas looks like the top of the boot of Italy. At the heart of the map, where I distinctly remember France being, is Terre d’Ange. I LOVE a fantasy tome with a map, so we were off to a good start, me and this book. And then you tell me it’s a map of bizarro alternate reality Europe?! Yes, please.
Then came the dramatis personae – six pages of characters grouped by class and region. First is Delaunay’s Household, where where we meet our heroine and narrator, Phèdre nó Delaunay (more on her later). Next comes pages and pages of character names, titles, notes about relationships, and I get excited. Me to the book: “You’re telling me that there will be princes, Comtes, Chevaliers, priests, thanes, and a Doge? And someone called the Master of the Straights? I also get a Yeshuite scholars and a Cruarch? I’m not sure what those are, but bring it on!” The only way this could be better is if there had been a family tree, which at one point about 75 pages in when I was getting confused about who was who and constantly flipping back to the beginning, I considered drawing for myself. I fully recognize that this gigantic cast of characters and the ensuing confusion will likely be a barrier to some readers, but for me…I was so in.
And THEN came the world building. We are 11 pages in when Carey drops a us into the theology and history of Terre d’Ange:
…how Blessed Elua came to be; how when Yeshua ben Yosef hung dying upon the cross, a soldier of Tiberium pierced his side with the cruel steel of a spearhead. How when Yeshua was lowered, the women grieved, and the Magdelene most of all, letting down the ruddy gold torrent of her hair to clothe his still, naked figure. How the bitter salt tears of the Magdelene fell upon soil ensanguined and moist with the shed blood of the Messiah.
And from this union the grieving Earth engendered her most precious son; Blessed Elua, most cherished of the angels.
So, we have a theology based on an angel who sprung from the earth and made from the blood of Christ and tears of Mary Magdalene? This could get interesting. Elua is joined by eight angels who accompany him as he wanders the earth, until they comes to Terre d’Ange (aka France). Terre d’Ange is pretty sweet, so they set up shop, creating a society organized around one idea: Love as thou wilt. This theology shapes nearly every facet of the Phèdre’s Terre d’Ange, from the angelic blood running through the d’Angeline nobility to the courtesans known as servants of Naamah (Naamah being one of the angels who used sex and pleasure to help Blessed Elua on his journeys) to the fact that, in this world, rape is considered blasphemy of the worst kind, punishable by death.
The way Carey built Terre d’Ange from this theology is endlessly fascinating to me and probably my favorite part of the book, but there’s a lot more to Carey’s worldbuilding here. She incorporates historical details about real ancient civilizations (the Picts, Germanic tribes, ancient Rome, etc) to keep the world familiar but still keeps the reader feeling a little off balance. I love the moments where we’d be introduced to a new people, and as a reader, I’d think to myself… is this Scotland? *googles furiously* it is Scotland! *falls down wikipedia wormhole.* I’m not the highest of high fantasy readers, so the way she anchored the story in familiarity helped keep me engaged when some of the more magical elements started emerging in the plot.
Plot! There’s a ton of plot here, and I haven’t even touched on it. The set-up: Phèdre is sold by her mother to Cereus House, one of the houses of the Night Court where the servants of Naamah ply their trade. Phèdre is considered damaged goods because of a scarlet mote in her eye until she meets Anafiel Delauney who sees the mote for what it is: a sign she has been marked by Kushiel’s Dart (Kushiel being one of Elua’s companions who seems to be an angel of punishment). Recognizing Phèdre as an anguissette, one who experiences pain and pleasure as one and a valuable and rare commodity in Terre d’Ange, Delauney purchases her indenture and trains her to be a badass courtesan spy. From there, ALL THE PLOT! It takes a while to get there, but once you do, things move along at a pretty swift pace, and it’s a lot of fun.
A note on the sex. I’ve seen this referred to as a BDSM novel more than once. Yes, there’s a lot of sex and it gets kinky, but this isn’t 50 Shades of Grey. Phèdre is an über-masochist, but she is also smart, strong, empowered, and a hero. Her sexuality may involve pain and submission, but it’s also a source of her strength. The role sex plays in this book is fascinating and refreshing. “Love as thou wilt” is taken to its logical conclusions in Terre d’Ange. Sex is a sacred act, and embracing it without shame is a form of worship for the D’Angelines. This is a world where everyone is free to love how and whom they choose.
Phèdre has a lot of sex in this book, some sublime, some disturbing. She has sex with a lot of different people: women, men, beautiful people, ugly people, kind people, cruel people. She has sex for a lot of different reasons: love, desire, despair, friendship, power, compassion, fear. What does all the sex have in common? Phèdre chose all of it for herself.