Kushiel’s Dart by Jacqueline Carey

“The poets do not sing of this, either, how death begets the urge toward life. I, who knew how to take pain, took Hyacinthe’s. Pain and delight, I took from him, and gave him back both, until we understood, the both of us, how they are intertwined, how one does not come without the other.”

Phèdre nó Delaunay is a masochist, both by inclination and by training. She has the ability to heal quickly, which comes in handy for a masochist, although she also has bad luck. She begins the book as a courtesan in training at the Night Court which contains different houses, each appealing to a different taste. She eventually becomes a ward to Anafiel Delaunay who trains her in observation, making her a spy as well as a courtesan. “All knowledge is worth having” is his motto and Phèdre concurs. I loved that even after she is warned that there are some things she shouldn’t know, she intends to find out anyway.

Kushiel’s Dart takes place in a world very much like our own during roughly the Middle Ages with slight fantasy elements such as prophecy. Jesus is referred to as Yeshua, Ireland is called Eire, Greece is called Hellas, etc. The story mostly takes place in Terre D’Ange (this alternate world’s version of France), but Phèdre also ends up traveling to Skaldia (Germany) and Alba (England). Everyone in this novel seems to be bisexual, and the central tenet of their religion can be summed up as “Love as thou wilt.”

We follow Phèdre from birth, through childhood, and young adulthood in this massive (over 1000 pages long) epic, the first book in a series. It’s slow-paced, but never boring. I’d say it rivals Game of Thrones and should be made into an HBO series right away. In fact, I think the author probably had George R. R. Martin’s series in mind since at one point a character says, “Will you teach me to play the game of thrones?”

Phèdre uses seduction to gain information and ends up finding out about a plot to invade Terre D’Ange and attempts to stop it. Because she loves to suffer, she can’t help but be attracted to the villains, which creates an interesting conflict. Phèdre often uses sex or spycraft to solve her problems, and when that doesn’t work, her foil, the celibate warrior monk, Joscelin Verreuil, uses his sword. They make a great odd couple throughout the novel.

I particularly liked a scene in which Phèdre attends to the dying after a battle. She writes letters to send home to their loved ones on their behalf before they die. It makes sense that this would be done, but I haven’t come across it before in stories that deal with wars. There’s a lot of interesting details like that throughout the novel. The only complaint I have is that the political talk was sometimes hard to keep track of, but this is minor.

The language in this book is poetry. We hear “the sharp crack branches will make when the sap freezes in their woody veins.” Another great description: “The Admiral himself had arrived, a burly, imposing figure who parted a path through his men as surely as the prow of one of his ships.” Additionally, there is a great poem called “The Exile’s Lament” that’s quoted within the novel.

I also liked many of the aphorisms found throughout the book:

  • “As everyone knows, beauty is at its most poignant when the cold hand of Death holds poised to wither it imminently.”
  • “When Love cast me out, it was Cruelty who took pity upon me.”
  • “Nothing spoils idle pleasure like too much awareness.”
  • “Money is one of the few pleasures that endure.”
  • “To describe Melisande Shahrizai is, as the poets say, to paint a nightingale’s song; it is a thing which cannot be done.”
  • “Everyone desires trade. And it is a form of power, of freedom; the propagation of culture is the guarantor of immortality.”
  • “It is human nature, to give in hope of getting.”
  • “That which yields, I thought, is not always weak.”
  • “If the greatest danger one faces as a slave is displeasing one’s masters, this is the second: pleasing them.”
  • “Happiness limits the amount of suffering one is willing to inflict upon others.”
  • “Truth seasons a lie like salt.”
  • “Pain levels us all.”

This is highly recommended for anyone who likes epic fantasy or poetic language. Definitely a must-read.

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