Time for yet another reading challenge entry. This one took me a while, for several reasons, not the least of which is its 700+ page length. This entry is The Kushiel’s Legacy series by Jacqueline Carey. As usual I only read the first book of the series to meet my challenge goal. That was Kushiel’s Dart, published in 2001.
I have many mixed feelings about this book. My enjoyment of it and level of engagement varied wildly from one chapter to the next. Since this book had quite a lot of chapters, this makes writing a review very difficult. I will do my best!
The story follows the life of Phèdre nó Delaunay. At a young age her parents sell her into indentured servitude. Initially the red mote in her eye is seen as a flaw that makes her unfit to become a high-ranking courtesan. However it is eventually revealed that the flaw is actually “Kushiel’s Dart”, a religious sign marking her as an “anguissette”, a prized sexual masochist.
Yes, in “fantasy France” (Terre d’Ange) where the novel is set, sexual ability is highly valued and compatible with their faith. Phèdre’s childhood is spent preparing her for a life of religiously-motivated servitude and prostitution. The children sold this way were not used for sex until they came of age, but they were told constantly that prostitution was a life of holy work and trained in submission and in sexual techniques. You might see now why I had a very hard time getting into this book. There are some aspects of this culture that seem really great. For instance, the full spectra of sexual orientation and sexual preferences are openly accepted. For me, though, “love as thou wilt” was never enough to offset the idea of children being bought and sold for this kind of life.
Once Phèdre is old enough to leave the training house (but before she comes of age) she enters the service of Anafiel Delaunay, who purchased her contract. He trains her in the ways of court intrigue in addition to her other talents. When she is finally old enough to start her work, her real job is to get her patrons to give up their secrets while they are using her body. Individual readers might love or hate this part of the book, depending on their own preferences, because the plot is heavily interspersed with graphic scenes of sexual torture. I would have found it distracting, but I didn’t care much about the plot at that point anyway.
For better or worse, immediately after Phèdre earns enough money to pay off her debt and become free tragedy strikes. Delaunay is murdered, along with his entire household, and Phèdre is given into true slavery to a tribe of Skaldi barbarians threatening Terre d’Ange’s borders. Where earlier Phèdre at least had some agency and a say in which clients she would take, now even that is stripped away. During this time, however, she discovers the extent of a plot that involves conspiracy between nobles from her homeland and the barbarians to overthrow the queen and take over Terre d’Ange.
The last major section of the book involves Phèdre and her bodyguard escaping, warning the queen, and then seeking a way to defeat the Skaldi with outside aid. Even though this section is filled with grim war, at least Phèdre is finally free to be her own person. The military strategies and political intrigue were mostly lost on me though, because I wasn’t invested enough at the start of the book to pay attention to who all these lords and houses were.
Overall my opinion is mixed. There were times, especially in the first half of the book or so, that I was ready to quit reading it completely. Looking back from the end, I guess I’m glad I finished it so I could at least see the ways in which it got better. It was very long, and I would not say I liked it, exactly, but once it finally got going it did tell an interesting, suitably epic story. I wish the premise and world-building had not been so problematic, I might have actually enjoyed the tale.
TL;DR: Alternate-Europe, low-magic political intrigue fantasy with an extra heaping helping of sex up front and war at the end. Depending on your personal tastes this book might be engaging and sexy or it might be completely off-putting.
The Kushiel’s Legacy series by Jacqueline Carey
Rating: 3/5 stars
Next up: Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke