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Kushiel's Dart
Reviewed by William Thompson, ©

Format: Book
By:   Jacqueline Cary
Genre:   Fantasy
Released:   June 2001
Review Date:  
RevSF Rating:   9/10 (What Is This?)

This debut by newcomer Jacqueline Carey is a seductive novel. Exceptionally well-written, intricately plotted and displaying a grasp of language and storytelling rare in fantasy fiction, this is an unusually rich outing, especially for a first time author. Ms Carey has imaginatively reinvested the typical conventions of high fantasy to create a world unique and individual, one that while it may harbor antecedents, never appears overly familiar.

Part epic adventure, part alternate history, the author weaves threads of intrigue with a sense of realism completely believable and reminiscent of Machiavellian politics, displaying a subtlety and complexity unparalleled in contemporary fantasy fiction, except for the recent works of Guy Gavriel Kay, George R.R. Martin or Steven Erikson. Drawing from a loose amalgam of historical periods -- the city-states of the Italian High Renaissance, Aragonian Spain, 6th century England, the Almoravid Dynasty, the uneasy confederacy of the German tribes prior to Charlemagne, as well as reinventions of cultural traditions based upon Hellenism, Judaism and Christianity -- the author is surprisingly successful at recontextualizing her temporally disparate sources, placing her narrative within an extravagant and uniquely elaborated setting of France most closely resembling the courtly period of Eleanor of Acquitaine, though entirely re-imagined.

And it is perhaps a mistake to draw these comparisons too closely -- the world the author has created is uniquely her own -- yet the historical sources are not only evident but intentionally recognized, in many ways mirroring and underscoring the marvelous way in which the author has been able to draw upon a variety of sources to suit her own unique narrative purposes. In the hands of many a less skillful writer, this seemingly arbitrary borrowing would appear awkward or contrived, but here the author is able to deftly reshape or re-identify each appropriation in a way that transforms it into a inseparable element of the extraordinary world she has created: no small accomplishment!

Told through the voice of a courtesan, an adept raised within the Houses of The Night Court, Phèdre is a child brought up to serve Naamah and the teachings of Elua, a perverse vision of the traditional Christ figure under whose precept, "Love as thou wilt," the act of love is considered sacred. For the courtesans of the Night Court, this teaching is expressed by the willing prostitution of the angel Naamah in service to the Blessed Elua, whose example they adopt in the statement of their devotion. Phèdre, while born into this tradition, is blemished by a blood mote in one eye, her beauty deemed unsuitable to the service of a courtesan. Uncertain what to do with her, she is offered in sale to shadowy aristocrat with an uncertain past who recognizes the mote as the Dart of Kushiel, the mark of a true anguisette, and buys the young girl into his service. While his ends remain hidden, he tutors the girl as a spy, and Phèdre's role as a courtesan becomes one of gathering information through her purchase for sexual pleasure.

But being marked by Kushiel's Dart carries a darker significance, for Kushiel is the angel of the rod and punishment, his chosen receiving both pleasure and cleansing through the infliction of pain. This provides an element to the novel that not all will find comfortable, and the story is highly eroticized through episodes of sadism and masochism. But this is no conventional romance meant to merely titillate through sexual description. The scenes of carnality, regardless of their at times disturbing content, are written with a skill and maturity rarely encountered in fantasy, and despite a temptation to level a charge of gratuity or gratification through perversion or the questionable appeal of a De Sade, because of its informing and significant role within the plot, as well as the skill of its statement, one finds oneself reluctant to do so, regardless of any questions the sexual implications of the novel may elicit.

Little question that the book's sexual content will set this work apart, for good or ill, from most other contemporary fantasy, and may well, as these considerations often do, help establish this author's reputation within the genre. For myself, I hope this is not the case, as it is but an element within a skillfully written narrative that offers the reader many rewards beyond its sexuality, its eroticism no greater or inseparable a contribution than its intricate story and tangled intrigues, or the exotic rendering of the societies of Terre D'Ange and Caerdicca or the mythos supporting their cultures. This is a unique world lavishly envisioned, and while the author at times falters, as in the revelations in Hyacinthe's meeting with his family, or the reenactment of Dunkirk with the fleet of the Albans, these moments are thankfully few and brief, and do little to undermine the overall strength and sureness in the rich development of the story. The ending itself is a clever delight.

A bold and compelling book, certain to engage the imagination of many readers, and without doubt one of the best debuts of recent memory. Deserving of the highest praise, for those of you not squeamish or fastidious in your own sexuality I would recommend this work without qualification. I, for one, will be looking forward to reading this author in the future.

William Thompson is a contributing writer for RevolutionSF.

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