During my MA program at an august and prestigious institution, there were two authors I read that made a profound impact on me. Only one of them was assigned for course work. The other I stumbled upon by accident in the local branch of the NYC public library, where I would pick up some light reading for the evening and weekends. That author was Jacqueline Carey, and the work I happened to pick up was “Kushiel’s Dart,” which was standing so innocently on a display shelf near the entrance.
If you’ve only heard rumors about the Kushiel books, then yes, for the record, they are…not like other books. The “50 Shades” books are tame and vanilla by comparison. If you have issues with reading about non-standard erotic practices, then these books are probably not for you, although–who knows?–they might broaden your horizons. The heroine of the first three books, Phedre, is a natural-born “anguissette,” someone who experiences sexual pleasure from pain. In the culture of Terre d’Ange, this is a rare talent, and Phedre, who belongs to one of the city’s infamous pleasure houses, is bought by someone who recognizes her value and trains her up to be a courtesan-spy.
This all sounds very lurid, but the genius of the books is that Carey makes it natural and sympathetic, creating a culture where polyamorous bisexuality, often with a side of BDSM, is the accepted norm, and courtesans work in service of the gods. And although the sexual side of the story is very present, it doesn’t overshadow the real achievement of these books, which is the creation of a unique and fascinating fantasy world, peopled with complex characters. The use of French rather than British history and culture to create Terre d’Ange, and the daring reimagination of Christianity and the Christian founding mythology, makes the world of Terre d’Ange stand out from your run-of-the-mill epic fantasy. Carey has said in interviews that Phedre came to her as a kind of gift of inspiration, and her distinct voice makes it clear that that is true, but Phedre’s whole world is lush and vividly imagined, plunging the reader into a culture that is both familiar and disconcertingly different.
The estrangement produced by the books is not just shocking for the sake of being shocking: it also allows Carey to make powerful statements about issues like freedom, justice, the value of women, and the importance of consent. Phedre lives in a world in which women are highly valued as both people and female sexual beings: she is a very feminine woman, surrounded by other very feminine women, all of whom have power and respect. She is also a slave who buys her freedom and has powerful thoughts on the nature of freedom and self-determination.
“Kushiel’s Dart” is a big, sprawling, epic work on every level, that begins a big, sprawling, epic series (the full Terre d’Ange series consists of 9 novels, each one running to something like 800 pages). If you’re looking for something short and compact, this is not the book for you. But if you’re looking for some epic fantasy that is engrossing, thought-provoking, and female-friendly, you can’t pass this book up.
Oh, and in case you were wondering, the other author who made such an impact on me that year was Marina Tsvetaeva. I’d like to think she would have enjoyed “Kushiel’s Dart” if she had been alive to read it.
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