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Book Review: Kushiel’s Dart

12 February 2007

If you were to ask—“Imperatrix, I’m bored and I need a suggestion for something to read. Nothing deep, I don’t have the energy, but something with Wow! and panache. Can you recommend something?”—then I would have to answer with an exuberant, Yes! And I’d go into this long explanation:

Last year (two years ago?), I picked up a book on the library’s New Books shelf, and from the moment I cracked the cover, I could barely put it down. That book was Kushiel’s Dart by Jacqueline Carey. It is historical fantasy, meaning in this case that the framework is Renaissance courtly intrigue set in a land that is clearly a reimagined France (just look at the map in the frontispiece; it’s called Terre D’Ange in the novel), and its capital city, the City of Elua. There is magic, but that’s not really the driving force in the story.

It isn’t the magic that draws the reader, it’s the language. Carey’s use of language is brilliant. You envision the people, the culture, and the accoutrements of the characters thanks to her fabulous sensual (meaning visual, tactile, and aural) descriptions.

But the novel is also sensual its more carnal sense. I have to warn you: Carey speaks frankly about sex in this novel. A central plot point is the religion of Terre D’Ange, which involves honoring sexuality in all its forms as a gift of the creator. Love as thou wilt is their credo, and so it is unsurprising that we learn quite a bit about the Night Court—the thirteen Houses which are home to the Servants of Naamah, the most elite cadre of religious prostitutes in Terre d’Ange—early on through our introduction to the main character, Phedre (an adept in one of those Houses). I found it amazing to consider a world where sexuality is openly accepted as a part of who we are as human beings—imagine a world where people aren’t exploited for sex, and where sexual needs aren’t considered a necessary but dirty part of humanity (admit it, for all the talk, people in general aren’t comfortable with open discussion of their own or others’ sexuality, and any public discussion of sex risks turning into titillating [heh] gossip). Carey explores the boundaries between pleasure and pain, the erotic and the aggressive, in this novel.

Do you see my problem? I can’t talk about the novel without mentioning the central place that sexuality has in the story, but it isn’t porn. Oh no. It is a gripping spy story (who is behind the attempted coup and destruction of the reigning House Courcel? How tangled is the web of treason?); it’s also a fascinating adventure story. It was one of those novels that when the story was finished, I wished it weren’t. This is absolutely a book I would recommend everyone at least try. Not everyone will like it, that’s certain. But just read the first chapter, and see where it takes you.

I don’t want to say too much about the plot becuase Carey does such a good job of keeping the pace going and adding just enough new material that you get a sense of the scope of this world and the machinations of those in power.

Carey has since then written three other novels continuing the adventures of the same group of characters. They aren’t as good (well, maybe the fourth one is better than the others), but that’s no surprise. As for me, any excuse to get back to Terre D’Ange is worth a try.

If anyone read it other than Three of Four (I’ve already got her hooked on it), let us know. If you give it a shot after reading this paltry review, let us know, too!

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