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

The third novel in Jacqueline Carey’s trilogy about the adventures of the courtesan Phédre picks up ten years after the events of Kushiel’s Chosen. In that time, she has struggled to find the key to releasing her beloved childhood companion Hyacinthe from his forced apprenticeship to the Master of the Straits. In the novel, Phédre must go on two separate but related quests: to save Imriel (son of her enemy and lover Melisande) and to find the Name of God that will enable her to free Hyacinthe. In both instances, she will find herself plunged into ancient and dark places, and she will have to give up a great deal in the process.

As with the earlier two entries, Carey conjures up her world with meticulous detail. We are introduced here to the land of Daršanga, whose ruler, the Mahrkagir, practices a perverted form of Zoroastrianism and in doing so hopes to bring about the corruption of the world by the evil Angra Mainyu. We also journey deep into the heart of Carey’s fictional Africa, to the kingdom of Saba, whose residents have remained cut off from the outside world and who have in their custody the keeping of the Ark of the Covenant.

While the earlier books in the series certainly went to some dark places, in this novel Carey takes this to new levels. The sinister realm of Daršanga, ruled over by the mad Mahrkagir, is one of the most compellingly written sequences in any recent fantasy. Carey immerses us in the despair and madness that Phédre endures as she struggles to survive in this world, ad she helps us to see the extent to which the fate of the entire world hinges on her ability to see to it that the ravenous, destructive force of Angra Mainyu isn’t unleashed on the rest of the world. Though she eventually succeeds, one gets the feeling that the damage that has been done will scar all of the characters for the rest of their lives.

Kushiel’s Avatar shows us the extent to which actions have consequences that often go beyond the immediate future. Melisande’s treachery has earned her the harsh mercy of Kushiel, and though it is unfortunate that the innocent Imriel must bear the brunt of his justice, it is also somewhat fitting. What better way to demonstrate the extent of Kushiel’s cruel mercies than by sending an innocent into the very heart of darkness itself? Indeed, had Melisande not done what she had in her own ruthless pursuit of power, it is entirely possible that the ultimate forces of the void would have swept all before them.

All of this feeds into the novel’s epic ambitions. Indeed, Kushiel’s Avatar comes closest to fitting within the narrative conventions of the epic. Here, the consequences of the story are not just about the politics and fates of a nation–though that is still part of the background–but of the very gods themselves. As their chosen avatar, it is up to Phédre to avert a catastrophe.

Kushiel’s Avatar is also about the terrible choices that one must frequently make on the journey to salvation. From the deeply personal–such as Phédre and Hyactinthe deciding that they cannot, in the end, become a couple–to the Phédre decision to embrace the darkness at the heart of Daršanga, these are the times that try the souls of our heroes. None of these choices are easy, and though the novel does have a happy ending, it also makes it clear that no one–not Phédre, not Joscelin, not Imriel, not Hyacinthe–will emerge unscathed from the things that they have endured. There are some wounds that never fully heal, and all one can do is embrace the small joys that life still brings.

I very much enjoyed Kushiel’s Avatar, and the novel once again demonstrates the extent to which Carey definitely deserves her accolades as one of the finest writers of fantasy working today. Her ability to do new things with the epic fantasy genre, particularly her lush prose and explicit sexuality, really does set her apart from almost anyone else working with the form. I can’t wait to see what the next books hold, as we switch from Phédre’s journeys to those of Imriel, the boy born of traitors and saved from the ultimate darkness.