Fantasy Classics: “Kushiel’s Chosen” (by Jacqueline Carey)

It’s a very rare thing for an author to follow up a delicious first novel with a sequel that is just as satisfying.

Well, Jacqueline Carey has done it, giving us Kushiel’s Chosen.

The novel picks up right after the end of the previous one, where Phédre attempts to discover the whereabouts of the traitor Melisande Shahrizai, the woman who very nearly brought about the end of the kingdom of Terre D’Ange. In the process, she encounters not only the viper’s nest of Serenissima, but also falls in with a pirate, a priestess, and a terrible confrontation with her own guilt. In the end, Phédre must come close to sacrificing everything she holds dear to save the country she loves.

Melisande continues to be one of the most compelling, exquisite, and yet utterly repelling creations in all of fantasy literature. Her cunning and her utter ruthlessness draw the reader as much as they do Phédre, and while it is very easy to hate her, you can’t help but admire her absolute willingness and ability to do whatever she has to do gain power for herself. However, it would be inaccurate to say that Melisande is amoral; rather, it is that she lives by her own rules. As she says to Phedre, Elua and his Companions care little for politics.

Though the fraught and deadly connection between Phédre and Melisande is one of the novel’s (and the series’) most compelling aspects, that between Joscelin and Phèdre is arguably the more complex and meaningful. They have the grave misfortune of being diametrically opposed in terms of their temperaments: Phèdre, an anguisette who experiences pain as pleasure, he a renounced Cassiline who cannot help but love her but can’t bear the thought of hurting her. Carey keeps the two of them balanced on an exquisite edge of conflict, even while reassuring us that they do, in fact, love one another.

I’ve always had a particular penchant for fantasy that works at the crossroads of historical fantasy and traditional fantasy. It’s a surprisingly rare type, and rarer still to find someone who does it with skill. Carey manages to create a world that lives and breathes with the same vibrancy as our own. These are nations that have their own complex histories and mythologies, their own ways of being in the world. More than just a colorful backdrop, they also determine how the various characters interact, both with one another and with their environments. Nothing is ever as simple as it seems.

Serenissima is definitely the standout in this novel, for Carey manages to find creative ways around the dilemma posed by this world’s lack of Christianity as a hegemonic faith. Instead, the people of this world’s Venice worship Asherat and Baal Jupiter. What’s so startling about it is how right it feels for the world that she’s created and how seamlessly she twines together a culture that is very much that of Renaissance Venice with a faith that probably seems strange to us. And, as it turns out, that faith has an important role to play in the affairs of kingdoms.

If Kushiel’s Dart was about the power to triumph after tremendous adversity, Kushiel’s Chosen is about the power of the gods to influence our lives, and about the sacrifices that we must sometimes make in order to see to it that the greater good is served. Phèdre may have her flaws–most notably in her inability to do away with Melisande–but she is an honorable woman, one who loves her country and her queen dearly and deeply. However, she also recognizes that her actions (and inactions) have brought about the deaths of many and, however, well-intentioned she might be, she still must contend with the moral burden this places on her soul.

Overall, Kushiel’s Chosen is a finely crafted and exquisite follow-up to Kushiel’s Dart. With its intricate (one might even go so far as to say baroque) plot, erotic and sensuous prose, and vividly detailed world-building, it somehow manages to be a coherent work of erotic epic fantasy. Somehow, Carey manages to make us feel the depths of despair and the joy of triumph, and at the end, you emerge as satisfied as one of Phèdre’s patrons.

Who could ask for more?