Kushiel’s Dart is the first “fat fantasy” I’ve read in a long time; and I enjoyed it so much, I may find myself shying away from the genre for a while for fear of disappointment in whatever Fat Fantasy book I pick up next. Jacqueline Carey has crafted here a novel that put me in mind of Guy Gavriel Kay; in fact, I thought more than once while reading it that this is what GGK would have written if he’d been a woman. This was a wonderful, wonderful book that only let me down at the very end, when it came time for Carey to set things up for the sequel.
The setting was the first thing about the book to remind me of GGK. We’re in a land that is basically Europe with the names changed, and the history is strongly based on Europe as well. In their “Middle Ages”, the main action takes place in the City of Elua, named for Blessed Elua, an angel born in the aftermath of the crucifixion of Yeshua more than a thousand years before. Blessed Elua and his followers established a land where the guiding priciple is Love as thou wilt. Into the service of Naamah, one of Elua’s followers, comes our heroine, Phedre, whom we meet as a child but who grows up before our eyes over the course of this 900-page novel. She is sold into the service of Naamah, which makes her a courtesan; later, she comes into the direct employ of a charismatic teacher named Anafiel Delaunay, who turns out (as does everybody in this complex book) to be much more than he seems. Phedre learns much about the world while in Delaunay’s service, much that eventually puts her in danger as she finds herself engaged in the court politics of this dangerous land; but Phedre is a good student and sharply intelligent, so she becomes as much a player as an observer over time.
More than that, Phedre is a rarity among courtesans: she has a red mote in her eye, which indicates that she has been marked with Kushiel’s Dart (Kushiel was one of Blessed Elua’s followers), and as such, she is something called an anguissette, a person who experiences physical pain as erotic pleasure, which leads to some fairly difficult passages in the book wherein Phedre describes for us her erotic actions (the book is told in first person, from Phedre’s perspective). Fair warning here, folks: if reading about what is literally sadomasochism isn’t your cup of tea, this book won’t be for you; but likewise, if you don’t mind that material (which is very well written, and not really gratuitous, in my estimation), the rest of the book is worthy of attention.
I don’t want to say a whole lot about the plot of this book, not just because I wouldn’t want to spoil it, but also because it’s a hard book to summarize. It’s very long, being the type of book one loses oneself within. One of the book’s most important characters, Joscelin Verreuil, who serves as bodyguard (and eventually much more than that) to Phedre, isn’t introduced until after page 250. This is an actual epic of a book, with the action ranging over virtually the entire continent of “Europe”. Along the way we meet roving bands of gypsies and their king; we travel north and east into the rugged lands dominated by Viking-like warriors called Skaldi, who are gathering underneath the banner of a new warlord; we travel west, over the straits, to the barbarian island realm where the blue-painted warriors fight for dominion. We meet the Master of the Straits, the being who controls the weather in the straits between Alba and Terre d’Ange (think the English Channel), choosing who gets to make passage and who doesn’t. We meet nobles motivated by love and by hate, soldiers motivated by money and by loyalty, lords motivated by revenge and lust, and noblewomen whose motivations can’t even be summarized in any real way.
Kushiel’s Dart is the start of a series, and I have every intention of continuing on. It takes a really good “Fat Fantasy” to capture my attention these days, but this one did. Carey creates a vivid world here, familiar and fantastic, and she populates it with memorable people who stand out and command sympathies – even the villains. I loved this book.