My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Kushiel’s Dart is the most engaging and detailed fantasy world I’ve encountered in years. It’s brilliantly plotted, highly original, well-paced, and shows both immense and believable character change over time. It’s a great book.
But I won’t be reading any more of the series, and it’s not a book I could recommend to most readers.
As good as it is, the subject matter made the book a little hard for me to read, and I imagine a lot of readers would be similarly uncomfortable. You see, the lead character is an anguisette: she feels pain as pleasure, leading her to become groomed as a courtesan-spy specializing in those who like to inflict pain.
Which can lead to some fairly uncomfortable descriptions.
To be fair, Jacqueline Cary doesn’t get obscene in her descriptions at all. They are artful in revealing just enough to paint a picture in your mind’s eye, guiding the direction but not actually getting too explicit. But it’s enough to make me uncomfortable reading those scenes (and there are many). That being said, I think many Fifty Shades of Grey detractors would LOVE this book, because it does a lot of what “Fifty Shades” failed to do: a) stress the importance and sanctity of the safety signal, b) clarify that even if it looks like it is abuse, the protagonist is enjoying herself intensely, c) shows concern from partners when something seems to go wrong, and d) demonstrates a clearly defined relationship (there’s even a literal contract!). If that weren’t enough, the “rules” of the submission are made clear when another character attempts to violate the protagonist; it’s a clearly horrible thing, outside of her normal business.
All that really endeared the book to me. As did the rich character background of the the narrator, Phredre. She is selected for her destiny when barely a child, and the reader follows her as she grows, develops, and discovers that she has been chosen by the angel Kushiel to be his Dart, a one-in-a-million creature who fully experiences pain as pleasure. She learns her way as a servant, then as courtesan, then begins her service. On the surface, she is merely pleasing her clients for money; more deeply, though, she is using them–and being used–to discover secrets, part of a plot she doesn’t fully understand until her whole world is shattered suddenly, forcing her on her own to seek vengeance.
It’s powerful, and Carey masterfully transforms Phredre and truly demonstrates how “all those who yield are not weak.” It’s brilliantly done.
The world itself is even more complex. Based on a near-earth world, the land of Terre d’Ange exists near versions of England, Ireland, Greece, and Russia. The real brilliance here is Carey draws from the real-life mythologies and tropes of these lands as she forms the distinctive cultures for each area. This helps make them seem realistic, and yet they remain laced with the fantastical. The reader with an appreciation for history and mythology will find shadows of the real-life counterparts in each region within the novel. And yet the mythologies and culture of Terre d’Ange is like none other.
Were it not for my own personal discomfort with the dominance-submissive theme, I would rate this book 5 stars. It’s fantastic. But it’s not for all readers–including me. As such, I look forward to reading some other series Carey may produce.