This trio of novels began with the July 2001 release of Kushiel's Dart, introducing Phèdre nó Delaunay as the first-person narrator of an extravagantly detailed and absorbing account of a young woman's singular fate, and her role in the politics of nations -- and the games of espionage played among the nobility. Carey sets her work in an alternate-Earth milieu that combines the highs and lows of Renaissance Europe and classical Greece and Rome, as well as elements of other cultures and eras.
In the City of Elua, the capital of Terre d'Ange, thirteen Houses comprise the Court of Night-Blooming Flowers, or the Night Court. Each House specializes in a particular sexual and/or sensual art. Phèdre's mother is a courtesan from one of the Houses who eloped with the third son of a merchant prince, after the prince denied permission for the marriage. Regarded as flawed because of a blood-red mote in the iris of her left eye, which "spoils" her otherwise obvious beauty, Phèdre's life and future are sold to Cereus House, and she never sees her parents again. They were unaware that this flaw is the mark of Kushiel, long forgotten among most d'Angelines -- but not for much longer.
Phèdre's sheltered life is enlivened by her friendship with a tsingani boy (analagous to a Rom, or gypsy) named Hyacinthe, who returns as a major player later in the story. Her time at Cereus House ends when the nobleman Anafiel Delaunay recognizes the scarlet mark, buys her bond, and makes specific plans for his new charge. From Delaunay she learns the true nature of her "flaw," and begins to understand the awesome and exacting power she must learn to wield. Delaunay, with her assent, has her trained in the Night Court's arts -- among them courtly customs, history, philosophy, languages, religion, and the intimate skills of the bedchamber -- and also teaches her to be a spy. While she first experiences intimacy at House Cereus, the full weight of being Naamah's Servant, and the bearer of Kushiel's Dart, becomes clear to her later, after she has chosen her path.
The angel Naamah, "who had gone freely to Elua's side, who had lain down with kings and peasants alike for his sake," is one of several divinities in the d'Angeline pantheon. Her Servants, both men and women, enact their worship of Elua by emulating Naamah, earning income through patron gifts to their House. Some of their income is spent toward the completion of a marque, a tattoo which proclaims each of them as a Servant forever; when the marque is finished, the indenture to the House ends as well. Being a Servant of Naamah is a sacred calling, not to be taken lightly. If an indentured person does not feel called to become a Servant, other tasks are assigned by the House. Those with salable skills (such as Phèdre's favorite seamstress) can eventually purchase a marque, and independence.
The d'Angelines believe they are descendants of consensual matings between mortals and the angelic disciples of Blessed Elua, who was created from the mingling of the blood of Yeshua ben Yosef (called by some the Meshiach) and the tears of the Magdalene. This creation myth is intended to explain the inherent beauty of the d'Angeline people. Elua left his disciples one commandment: Love as thou wilt. To that end, d'Angeline society, nobility, and culture are a mix of strict etiquette and lavish, Dionysian delights that are bound with their religious beliefs.
The d'Angelines worship their angelic ancestors, each of whom represents a specific aspect of Elua. Kushiel is the angel of justice and retribution, the "rigid one of God," whose Dart marks the anguissette, one who experiences pain as pleasure and pleasure as pain, without any conscious effort, as well as a sort of religious ecstasy when pushed to either limit. This is both Phèdre's power and her doom. She walks an experiential tightrope every day of her life, knowing that straying too far to either side could be very hazardous to her and those around her. She has to develop the strength of will to resist complete surrender to either extreme; the necessity of this control leads to some seriously conflicted relationships as she matures.
Anafiel intends to aim his beautiful weapon at a conspiracy he suspects is brewing within the court of the d'Angeline queen, the still-single Ysandre de la Courcel. As Phèdre learns more of what Anafiel wants to know, his enemies overcome him, and Phèdre is again sold into servitude, this time to Waldemar Selig, the Skaldi war-leader who manages to finally unite the Norse-like tribes under his own banner of conquest. But she has help -- a Cassiline monk named Joscelin Verreuil, who is trained in hand-to-hand and sword combat, and sworn by Anafiel to be her bodyguard. But Cassiline monks are also celibate -- and called apostates as such, for they defy Elua's edict. Phèdre has a little problem with this arrangement: she begins to find him. . . attractive.
In the midst of their sojourn with the Skaldi, however, Phèdre learns more of the plot against the Queen. Having survived enslavement to Selig, she and Joscelin make a harrowing journey back to Terre d'Ange. She meets her sovereign and, thanks to her skill with languages, becomes a royal emissary to the Cruarch of Alba, the Queen's betrothed. Kushiel guides her steps, and she and Joscelin are able to finally warn their ruler of her impending danger.
Along the way, Phèdre meets, and later escapes, the beautifully lethal Melisande Shahrizai of Kusheth, a Terre d'Ange province whose people are well acquainted with Phèdre's particular gifts. Melisande can make Phèdre's knees turn to water just by looking at her, and Phèdre's awareness of this fatal weakness does nothing to reduce Melisande's effect on her. Melisande knows exactly what Phèdre craves as an anguissette and knows how to give it to her. All Servants of Naamah have a signale written into their contracts with patrons (a safeword, the equivalent of crying "Uncle!"), so that the patron knows when the adept has reached his or her personal limit. Phèdre has used her signale only once -- during her first assignation with Melisande.
Melisande is hotly sought after when Queen Ysandre and her betrothed are finally reunited. After a perilous ocean crossing, Phèdre acquires her own small retinue of sailors-turned-chevaliers, who call themselves Phèdre's Boys. But Melisande vanishes, and the challenge she sends to Phèdre -- in the form of Phèdre's once-lost sangoire cloak, with its blood-red hue so dark as to be almost black -- sets the stage for the events of Book Two.
Kushiel's Chosen opens with Phèdre and her household -- Joscelin and three of the "boys" among them -- preparing to return to Elua from her lands in Montrève, which she received from the Crown as recompense for having been falsely accused of murder. The cloak is the most visible sign to others of an anguissette, and Phèdre believes it's a sign that a traitor still lurks near the heart of her beloved country, and her ability to withstand the attraction she feels for Melisande while locating that traitor becomes the focus of the second novel. The game of spies and thrones begins again.
Spun into this adventure is the growing tension between Phèdre and Joscelin, who have become lovers. Joscelin is none too happy with her decision to re-enter Naamah's service as a way to uncover the traitor. It means he has to share her with strangers, after he has risked his life to be with her.
As she re-enters d'Angeline court life and Naamah's service, Phèdre seeks clues to the traitor's plans and identity. As she hunts for information, she travels from Terre d'Ange to foreign lands and back again, sometimes stumbling into danger, and other times seeking it out. She eventually succeeds in her mission, guided by both Kushiel and Blessed Elua in the directions she must take to achieve her goal.
Phèdre's childhood friend Hyacinthe plays a role throughout the trilogy. He has the gift of Sight from his mother, and he sees disturbing things ahead for Phèdre. His visions include similar events for himself, and in a grand act of sacrifice he volunteers to become the Master of the Straits, the waters that separate Terre d'Ange from Alba (our world's English Channel).
The Master of the Straits has magical control over weather and water in the region. The Master is immortal, but ages physically, and is eventually driven mad. An ancient curse binds the Master to his island until another touches its land and is consigned to the role of Master in turn.
In Kushiel's Avatar, Phèdre makes Hyacinthe's freedom her personal quest. She undertakes to learn an ancient language from Yeshuite scholars, in order to locate a missing tribe and learn the Name of God. But her personal mission is entwined with another promise: to find the missing son of the Terre d'Ange royal family, Imriel de la Courcel. Thus begins her final and most challenging quest.
When Kushiel's Dart was published, Carey was hailed by many reviewers as a very talented but relatively unknown writer in the fantasy / alternate history genre. She certainly had no obvious track record in any major magazines in the genre. But she's no stranger to fantasy.
At least two of her short stories (1) are deeply rooted in fantasy, and she's written a non-fiction book about angels (2). She holds degrees in psychology and English literature, has traveled in Europe, Scandinavia, and the Middle East, and describes herself as a very eclectic reader. From her day job as an arts administrator at Hope College's DePree Art Center Gallery in Holland, Michigan, she had available nearby many of the research resources she used to create Phèdre's world. And as anyone who's been to Holland, Michigan knows, living in the midst of the riot of color that appears each spring -- the annual Tulip Festival -- is bound to stimulate the imagination.
Any other writer combining these elements would, of course, come up with a very different result, for that's the beauty of individual minds -- perspective shapes each of us in different ways. Carey decided to write about Phèdre's world and life in a way that reveals the intimate elements of her tale, thereby teetering on the fence between romance and erotica. But Carey accomplishes the difficult balancing task by emphasizing the spiritual elements of human sexuality in making Phèdre a vessel of the divine, a mortal woman selected by an angel for a purpose, not someone who actively seeks divine notice. She also injects just the right amount of humor in the right places to keep her characters from becoming too full of themselves, avoiding the trap of melodrama.
All the books in the trilogy are hefty tomes, around 700 pages each in hardback. Fantasy novels of this length generally make me run away very fast, being too reminiscent in size of one seemingly-endless quest novel which will remain nameless. It takes a lot to interest me in a fantasy over 350 pages.
But there's a select group of seasoned writers who've written very readable multi-volume fantasies (George R. R. Martin, Jane Fancher, and C. J. Cherryh among them), and Carey belongs in their esteemed company. She fine-tunes her characterization, setting, and pacing to draw the reader in. Reading these books is like glancing at a painting, and then finding oneself still staring at it hours later. Action scenes are frequent enough to keep things moving without overloading the pace, the characters develop in an internally logical and satisfying manner, and the romantics among readers get a love affair that's as captivating as Burton and Taylor made Antony and Cleopatra look on film. Carey knows how to write good fight scenes, too -- Joscelin, in the heat of battle, is beauty in motion (in the reader's mind, of course).
The magic in these books stems from the spiritual belief system Carey constructed for her world. She bases the conflicts in her narrative not only on the differences in religious beliefs among nations, but also on how "real" historical conflicts develop (power struggles, economic difficulties, etc.). Magic also infuses the way Carey weaves together cultural and religious elements from ancient Greece and Crete, Renaissance Europe, and Medieval Britain and Germany. These "memory tags" come spilling out of the narrative at a steady pace, enough to enrich the text without overwhelming it.
In regard to language specifically, several of Carey's inventions should feel familiar to anyone who's studied Latin or a modern Romance language. "Anguissette" is obviously related to the root of "anguish," for example. She calls one of the major cities in her story "La Serenissima," which is another name for Venice, the well-known canal city of Italy. The novels are liberally seasoned with such linguistic clues.
Students of history should revel in the dense tapestry of touch-points, and even those who aren't history buffs should recognize much of what Carey is doing. The concepts of the sacred prostitute, the melding of pleasure and pain into sexual and/or spiritual ecstasy, court intrigues, and the constant quest by some people for more power and control should be familiar to most readers. If not, I envy them the thrill of discovering them for the first time in such a sumptuous package.
But this is not your grandma's standard quest novel. The common thread, running below all the lavish detail, is the account of how Phèdre learns what being marked by divinity means on a personal level, and how she manages to come to terms with it. The mortal selected as Kushiel's Chosen is marked in the physical, spiritual, mental, and emotional realms. Such a mark is a sacred responsibility, its bearer not given a choice -- and Phèdre's not always sublimely pleased to do as her divine master directs. Her humanity is best displayed, in fact, in the parts of the books where she's in direct conflict with Kushiel.
The Kushiel books have at least one potential genre ancestor, though Carey may not know it -- the Silistra tetralogy (3) (for pigeonholers, it can be labeled a science fantasy) by Janet E. Morris, published between 1976 and 1980. Morris may be more well-known to readers from the Hell series (co-created with C. J. Cherryh and including Heroes in Hell, Masters in Hell, Prophets in Hell, Kings in Hell, etc., some of which were novels and others story collections).
Both Morris and Carey employ very similar skills in making their respective worlds believable, as well as using sexuality as a key element in their stories. Morris' Estri Hadrath diet Estrazi is produced from the mating of a Silistran courtesan with a star-farer. Both women supercede their circumstances and rise to positions of power, one through an angel's mark, the other through her father's space-time Shaper heritage. Both use their sexuality as a tool to reach their goals and never consider it demeaning.
Though Phèdre does very little sword-fighting, where Estri is trained for battle and is a daunting fighter, this difference just emphasizes the historicity of Phèdre's world -- men generally do the fighting. Joscelin more than makes up for her lack of martial prowess with the blade.
Carey and Morris are adepts at using sensuality as a tool for character and plot development, though neither uses overt erotica in their respective works, wisely leaving what happens after a certain point to the reader's imagination. But they do give plenty of fuel for that imagination.
The books that serious readers keep are generally those which they are drawn to more than once. I see every likelihood that this trilogy will be a permanent addition to my personal library, and I hope it will be accompanied by many future Carey novels. The style of the language is elegant and lush, sure and smooth, the kind of writing one expects from a master. . . and Carey's only just getting started.
Copyright © 2004 J.G. Stinson
J. G. Stinson is a freelance writer/editor. Her nonfiction work has appeared in Tangent Online, SpecFicMe!, The New York Review of Science Fiction, and Speculations.
- "Bludemagick," published in the electronic magazine InterText, 1995; "In the City," published in the electronic magazine Quanta, 1995.
- Angels: Celestial Spirits in Art & Legend.
- High Couch of Silistra, The Golden Sword, Wind from the Abyss, The Carnelian Throne.
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