Sunday, August 9, 2015

Review: Kushiel's Dart by Jacqueline Carey

Kushiel’s Dart by Jacqueline Carey
Published: Tor, 2001
Series: Book 1 of Kushiel’s Legacy
Awards Won: Locus Award for Best First Novel

The Book:

“Phèdre nó Delaunay is a young woman who was born with a scarlet mote in her left eye. Sold into indentured servitude as a child, her bond is purchased by Anafiel Delaunay, a nobleman with very a special mission...and the first one to recognize who and what she is: one pricked by Kushiel's Dart, chosen to forever experience pain and pleasure as one.

Phèdre is trained equally in the courtly arts and the talents of the bedchamber, but, above all, the ability to observe, remember, and analyze. Almost as talented a spy as she is courtesan, Phèdre stumbles upon a plot that threatens the very foundations of her homeland. Treachery sets her on her path; love and honor goad her further. And in the doing, it will take her to the edge of despair...and beyond. Hateful friend, loving enemy, beloved assassin; they can all wear the same glittering mask in this world, and Phèdre will get but one chance to save all that she holds dear.”

Kushiel’s Dart is Jacqueline Carey’s impressive debut novel, and the start of a long series. I participated in a read-along of Kushiel’s Dart, and spoiler-filled discussions of each section of the book can be found here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8, Part 9, Part 10.  Now it’s time to wrap everything up into my final reflections!

My Thoughts:

Kushiel’s Dart is an epic fantasy that has helped to revive my interest in the genre.  From my limited knowledge of the novel, I had assumed it was going to be primarily a romance. There certainly is a lot of sex, and a little bit of romance here and there, but other than that my expectations were off the mark. Kushiel’s Dart is the beginning of an epic fantasy adventure, with a meticulously designed world, a variety of cultures, interesting mythology, a bit of magic, battles and court intrigue.

Phèdre--an intelligent, masochistic courtesan and spy--is a variety of heroine I have never seen before in this genre, and she lives in a society that has a surprisingly positive view of sex workers, both male and female. The fictional world of Kushiel’s Dart is obviously inspired by historical Europe, but the open sexuality and less constricting gender roles of Phèdre’s homeland Terre d’Ange (fantasy France) make for a dramatically different setting than the usual pseudo-medieval world.  Phèdre encounters a variety of different lands and cultures throughout the story, most of which have a real-world counterpart. I enjoyed trying to match up fictional places to real areas I’d lived or visited, and comparing my outsider’s view of various cultures to the novel’s portrayals.

Kushiel’s Dart also has a fair bit more sexual content than the books I usually review, so I feel like I should add a few comments on that aspect. Phèdre entertains many patrons, by her own choice, but I never felt like the descriptions crossed a line into too crass or cheesy. I appreciated that consent is treated as an important concept throughout; Phèdre enjoys pain in her encounters, but the distinction between consensual and nonconsensual sex is not blurred.  One thing that bugged me a little was the general attitude about Phèdre’s safeword. I’d generally understood that a safeword existed to enable clear communication, but Phèdre and her patrons seem to see forcing her to use it as a battle of wills. I also sometimes felt that Phèdre fell back on her bedroom skills and her physical attractiveness a bit too often, and I would have liked more opportunity to see her intellect shine.  Phèdre is growing and learning, though, and I’m looking forward to seeing how her tactics will develop throughout the series.  
Kushiel’s Dart has a lot going on outside the bedroom as well.  Phèdre’s life story starts out peacefully, but things become much more dangerous as she gets involved in the web of the d’Angeline court and beyond.  Her world is populated with a massive cast of characters, so much that it was a challenge at first to keep track of them all.  It was much easier to become emotionally invested in the small group of major characters that are closer to Phèdre, and to just try to monitor all the politics that were going on in the background.  In general, I could rely on the novel to highlight the important political details for me, but there are a few times where the story grinds to a complete halt for extensive discussions about the political situation.  The information is useful, but it seemed to throw off the otherwise-quick pacing of the story. Even so, I really enjoyed how even the most minor characters have their own personal goals, and how they act in accordance with them in ways that affect the story. This is the kind of book where any character may die, and where no one, including the heroine, is immune to failure.  I’ve enjoyed community-reading this novel immensely, and I am already reading the sequel, Kushiel’s Chosen!

My Rating:  4.5/5

Kushiel’s Dart is an engaging epic fantasy adventure featuring an unusual heroine--a low-born, masochistic courtesan and spy, Phèdre.  I enjoyed the creativity that was lavished on the fantasy version of Europe that made up the world’s setting, and I especially enjoyed the dramatic differences between the culture of Terre d’Ange and those that are more commonly found in fantasy.  For instance, Phèdre’s society is very permissive about sex, and her role as a courtesan is both respected and considered a sacred calling. The story takes some unexpected twists, and it seemed to me like Phèdre’s situation changed dramatically after every few chapters.  The cast was huge, the court intrigue was complex, and there were plenty of hardships, betrayals, and surprises on Phèdre’s long path to protect her homeland.  I’ve already started reading the next novel, Kushiel’s Chosen and I am excited to see what’s next for Phèdre.     


  1. A very lovely write up! I hope others read your review and decide to give this novel a shot. It is definitely worthy.

    1. Thanks! I hope so, it was an excellent book. :)