Kushiel’s Dart by Jaqueline Carey

Note: This is an adult book. Discretion advised.
Kushiel's Dart

Primarily I read and review non-fiction books.  While I like to read fiction, fiction tells a story and its strength is its ability to allow you to see life through someone else’s eyes.

Radically different lives give you a view of a different world.  Several studies have shown that reading fiction helps to build empathy and actually by itself, helps to build interpersonal skills.

Fiction in the Christian world often has a couple problems.  One, it often is oriented toward ‘nice’ stories that end well, that show people that are too easily changed by the message of Christ or where there is not actually any real conflict in the book. So I rarely read fiction published by Christian publishing houses.  But second, there is a distrust of fiction in the Christian world that I find problematic.  That distrust seems to be rooted in the fiction of the tale.  There are Christians that are uncomfortable with stories as a means of conveying truth.

Kushiel’s Dart will not be mistaken for a Christian novel.  It is about a girl, sold into indentured servitude by her mother as a young child, raised to become a prostitute.  She becomes a courtesan to the wealthy, one that specializes in the darker sexual appetites.  This book is fairly explicit.  The sex is throughout the book.  Bi-sexuality, bondage and torture are described, the main character views her job as what might be called a temple prostitute, a way for others to reach out to their god.

So at this point you might wonder why I read this book, and why I am reviewing it.  First, the book is very well written.  Second, while it is explicit, there is a point to much of it.  It is not written as erotica, but fantasy that includes sex.  Third, I have had people recommending it to me for about a decade.  I don’t read everything recommended to me, but I do try to read a lot of it.  Recommendations are a great way to expand your horizons.

So I read it.  The beginning third, I almost put it down a couple of times.  The main character, Phedre, has been touched by the Gods so that she feels pleasure through the experience of pain.  She is ‘gifted’ in a way that no one else has been in generations.  Her mentor recognizes this in her and uses her gifts as a means to expand his spy network and, as we find out throughout the book, to protect the royal line.

The world is a convoluted bizarre reflection of the middle ages.  The main area is roughly France, with a trip to the British Isles, sort of Arab merchants, etc.  The religion is somewhat identifiable.  The Jesus figure had a son, and that son and his companions are the gods.  The Jesus figure was crucified, but not resurrected. (Sort of a fantasy version of Da Vinci Code, but way better written.)

There are two levels to this book for me.  One, I enjoyed an epic fantasy book (without hardly any magic) that was primarily told from a female perspective.  There are all of the elements of epic fantasy (most people that like George RR Martin, will like this).  But told from the perspective of a courtesan (regardless of her sexual proclivities) is a perspective in fantasy that is not often told.  And it is usual for fantasy books to be written by women and appreciated by women in my experience.

The second level, is the more common tale of a hero that does not believe they are specially gifted, but does what needs to be done, especially when they are the only one to do it.  Part of what was interesting to me was a different view of sex.  (It is not one I hold by the way.)  Phedre, has a sense of sexual ethics, but it is one based around the idea of personal choice and molded by the fact that she believes she is serving the gods and was particularly touched by one of the gods for some reason.  For much of the book that touch is viewed as a curse.  But there is a point when she realizes that curse it may be, there are times that it can be used as a benefit.

So while many fantasy books show the hero fighting through battle after battle.  Phedre is having sex with person after person to accomplish her goal.  She is captured, enslaved, raped, tortured, freed, disbelieved, pushed beyond what she believes she can endure, all because there is a higher purpose.  In this way it reminded me of Dumas’ Three Musketeers.

In the Three Musketeers, the heros try to prop up a throne that is falling because of treachery and corruption, but they act with disregard for their own lives because they believe that their own lives are less important than the country.  Phedre is willing to do things she does not want to do because of devotion to others.

One of her companions, time after time, breaks his religious vows in order to fulfill the vow he holds as primary.  Real life is somewhat like that.  We do have to balance our morals with the reality of life.

The sexual ethics of this book do make me uncomfortable.  So I do not want to recommend the book too strongly.  But I also do not want to dismiss a book that has some value because there are things that happen in the book that do not match my moral categories.  This is not a short book.  It is almost 800 pages and is the first of a series of 8, with additional books that support the primary series.  I have only read this first book at this point.  But I probably will read some more in the future.

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I picked up this book recently, and probably wouldn’t have done so w/o your recommendation. I did find the gods of the world a bit jarring, but found the sexuality to be much less of a negative than it might have been (“negative” in the sense of feeding parts of my psyche that don’t need a lot of extra nourishment). But what struck me most about the book was that Carey knows how to write! I’ve read Martin’s quintet, and obviously enjoyed it enough to slog through several thousand pages. But my overall “feeling” from his fiction is one of somewhat shallow entertainment, reliant on shocks of sex and violence to keep the reader involved–I finished the five books feeling as though I’d just sacrificed numerous hours of my life to someone who abused them. But, contrary to what one might think, Carey’s writing strikes me as much more “wholesome” than Martin’s work, and it certainly strikes me as much more beautifully crafted. (I find it difficult to express exactly why, but I think it does connect w/ what you wrote: at its core, Carey tells a story of humanity, while Martin’s seems much more a narrative of absurdity.)

    I think you are right although I wouldn’t have put it that way. In spite of the sex and abuse in Carey’s world, there is a redemptive arc. But in Martin’s there is a futility.

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