Oh, you didn’t think I was going to tackle the canon, did you?
I’ve been meaning to read Jacqueline Carey for a few years now. She features on many ‘best of’ female-authored fantasy lists, and, given that my knowledge of major genre texts is actually quite weak, she seemed an obvious choice. I don’t know, I have to redeem myself for never having finished LOTR.
There is only one copy at the Durbanville library, and it looks like it has been in circulation since the 1800’s. It has this cover:
Which is a tad more soft porn-esque than I generally prefer. It looks like some kind of niche market Mills&Boon. The bespectacled librarian gave the novel a disapproving look, and asked, ‘Do all young people these days like vampire books?’
I’m afraid so, ma’am. I’m afraid so.
To be honest, Kushiel’s Dart wasn’t what I was expecting. I was expecting weird fantasy sex. And there was a teaspoon of that. But the vast majority of this cocktail was comprised of:
- Worldbuilding exposition,
- Phèdre worrying/plotting,
- People with French names talking about other people with French names,
- Descriptions of how beautiful the citizens of the France Terre D’Ange are.
I think Kushiel’s Dart is better described as an abstracted political/historical novel than a traditional fantasy. Like, this was clearly and unapologetically Europe, with prettier teeth and better sanitation and much more organized brothels. Would I have preferred weird fantasy sex? Quite possibly, but that’s not to say that this book is bad. It is just much, much, MUCH too long.
1015 pages? Ja, no. I have a life to live.
But I stuck it out and now, dear reader, I present to you my Feek review.
In a departure from the norm, I don’t actually feel that this novel is sexist. It deals with gender, yes, and has fairly traditional expectations of both sexes, but it isn’t at all condescending and presents everyone as equally capable in different areas. So while Phèdre, our protagonist, can charm/sex her way out of any predicament, Joscelin, her guard, is very good at stabbing people. Yes, that is the gender role dichotomy epitomised, but Phèdre’s methods are treated as equally (if not more) honourable than Joscelin’s.
The basic premise of the book is that Phèdre is a super-powered masochist known as an anguissette. She experiences all pain as sexual pleasure, which makes her highly desirable in the French BDSM community. About half the book is a bildungsroman of Phèdre learning how to anguissette, deciding on safe words, being generally horny, attending parties, and spying on people with interchangeable French names. What makes this uncomfortable is the fact that she is about sixteen and has been in training from about… eleven? But she seems pretty happy with the situation and her boss/mentor/father figure makes sure she stays chaste until she is legal. I don’t know how I feel about this, but not fantastic.
Major spoilers from this point onwards.
Boiling in the background are political machinations to overthrow the monarchy. This is communicated to the reader through a steady stream of expositional conversations between Delaunay, Phèdre’s boss/pimp, and a host of indistinguishable men who probably figure into the plot somewhere, but I’ll be damned if I know how. I still don’t understand how Phèdre managed to accidentally betray Delaunay just by learning about his well-advertised relationship with a long-dead royal scion, but that’s apparently a thing, because she spends a good portion of the rest of the book angsting about it.
I think my problem is the character names. There are approximately a thousand of them. They are all D’ something or L’ something or sound like a vehement sneeze. And if said characters were mentioned once three hundred pages ago, my chances of remembering their relevance are not high. This is what most the book consists of. I tried to follow it. I failed, possibly because I kept skimming pages that featured too much inconsequential waffling.
But proceeding with my shaky, shaky conception of things. Delaunay made a promise to his dead royal lover to protect their child, who is now the crown princess. Various independent factions would like to take over the throne. The only ones we actually need to worry about are: Melisande, Waldemar Selig and d’Aiglemort.
Melisande is easy enough to remember. She’s the novel’s true antagonist, a sadist who Phèdre is enamored with. She somehow controls everything? Again, not too clear on how, but the book says so, and in narrative lore we trust.
Waldemar Selig is the dirty foreigner warlord from Germany Skaldia, who is set to invade France.
As for d’Aiglemort, I have no clue where he came from, but he popped up late in the novel and I just sort of ran with it. Okay, my dude wants to betray the country to Waldemar? Cool. Gotcha. Who is he again?
The pace of the novel improves substantially after Delaunay is murdered, Phèdre and Joscelin are betrayed, and Melisande sells them off as slaves to Waldemar. Action at last! I’m not saying the pacing here was good (hahaha, 300 pages of walking), but at least there were immediate and pressing dangers. And, because we had left France, I no longer needed to keep track of all the D’Whatsits. In Germany, people are called Thruk, Obuk, or similar, and there were fewer of them.
Here, however, the first obvious plot contrivances reared their heads. Joscelin, because of his priestly vows, refuses to leave Phèdre. This gets ridiculous when, with the fate of France hanging in the balance, he refuses to ditch her and escape to warn the princess of their country’s impending and entirely preventable doom. The believability problem is exacerbated by the fact that he has, at this point, already broken said vows and hates Phèdre quite a lot. He later changes his mind about her (duh), but at the time he sees her as the antipathy of everything he stands for. Maybe there are romantic undertones to this, but in the light of all the murdering that Waldemar is about to evince, it’s hard to retain a favourable impression of Joscelin.
After many escapades, and when they are AS FAR FROM FRANCE AS POSSIBLE (IN WINTER (WITH ALL THE ENEMIES (AND BEARS))), they decide it is escaping time. There follows a great and snowy trek back to France. They find the princess, they reveal the truth, they succeed and now I’m thinking, good, this seems to be the end, thank you, it has been fun.
Oh no, Kerstin. Many adventures remain. Look at this great wad of pages still to go.
The thing is, the Groot Trek was the climax of the story and you cannot convince me otherwise. I shall present evidence.
It is where Phèdre and Joscelin finally had sex. This is the romantic narrative equivalent of signing off. In these circumstances, they cannot do anything more intimate, except perhaps fight, then have more sex. But that’s typically a Book 2 spiel. Thus, this is where our romance has been finalized. They sealed the deal.
It is what the entire preceding voetsek-number of pages led up to.
It is certainly the most tense and exciting bit.
Having revealed the truth to the princess, Phèdre’s job is done. Nothing more can reasonably be asked of this sex worker.
With the exception of bringing Melisande to justice and sending l’army off to bash the Germanic hordes, all the conflict of the story has been resolved.
Thus if the author wanted to continue telling me about Phèdre and co, she would have been completely justified in a sequel. Reader, I was finished. And yet, the book wasn’t. Because now Phèdre has been tasked finding the princess an army. Why Phèdre, you ask? Because it seems she is the only one capable of speaking whatever language the Scottish Pictish people speak. Is this believable? No, it is not.
The problem being, the Scots are a bit busy with infighting. So Phèdre first has to survive that war, before she can persuade the ruggedly handsome barbarians to join France’s war. For this, she has to cross the British Channel twice. Here, we encounter the only solidly magical element of the novel – a very pissy sea spirit who tries to drown our heroine. Twice. The ‘Master of the Straits’ felt wholly out-of-place to me, and probably existed solely to rid Joscelin of his romantic rival, Hyacinthe. As someone who had been shipping HyacintheXPhèdre for 700 pages, I was unimpressed when he was summarily written out of the book because the fucking sea spirit wanted human company. Oh, so he’s just going to live on this island now? Right then. Fabulous.
Strangely, all this action ended up feeling rushed. Epic battles were reduced to chapter-long affairs. After taking six chapters just to describe Phèdre’s early childhood party-going experiences, the change in pace was bizarre. I received the impression that the author wasn’t nearly as invested in writing about fights to the death as she had been when describing ballgowns and food.
At last, we reached the final battle. For reasons (basically, trying to save a lot of French soldiers by communicating with other French soldiers locked in a siege), Phèdre sneaks through the vast enemy encampment in the early hours of the morning, climbs some scaffolding, and yells a message to the princess inside the fort. She did not gain powers of invisibility to achieve this, by the way. For about three pages, this was the least believable moment in the whole book. Then it was surpassed.
Waldemar, reunited with Phèdre, decides that he is going to skin her alive. Quite literally. Fair enough, and he sets about this. Even our super-masochist finds the process unpleasant. It’s gross, and she comes across as pretty close to dead. Then Joscelin comes to the rescue (which, in itself, is more than a little implausible), and the two lovers make it into the fort.
The princess slaps some ointment on the fatal wounds, gets a doctor to stitch the skin back into place, and Phèdre’s like: ‘I’ll walk it off.’
Hahahaha. No. You are dead.
Not only does she walk. She holds conversations, climbs stairs, offers military advice and, after the fighting is done, goes out to assist the wounded. Would you like some water, Thrudd? Ah, my back? ‘Tis but a scratch.
The book is still not done. By this stage, I’m sure you are experiencing the same kind of fatigue I did.
The miraculously healed Phèdre heads back to her home city. There is a royal wedding. Melisande is caught and put to trial. She escapes. Joscelin frets about his vows of celibacy some more. Phèdre inherits a title and estate, and takes Joscelin along with her. And then the conflict for the sequels is set up, with Melisande planning yet more coup attempts.
Kushiel’s Dart is not a bad book. I feel like it needed a ruthless editor, but the language is lush and Phèdre is charming in a conniving sort of way. Where I felt it was less successful was in its deliberate obfuscations – the book compensated for a lack of true political complexity and nuance by throwing vast amounts of meaningless detail at the reader. To a degree, it worked. I ended up feeling confused and overwhelmed, simply because I didn’t know who was who. Or why they mattered. This is because most of the time, these characters didn’t matter. They were kind of like anti-Chekov’s Guns. Placed in the narrative so the reader would be assured of their importance, but then, ultimately, pointless.
For Feek’s sake.