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

Having finished the original Kushiel series, I found myself longing to immerse myself again in that fascinating and sensual world. I’d tried once before to read the next three volumes in the series, which focus on Imriel, but for some reason just couldn’t get into them as much. This time around, however, I’ve found myself irresistibly drawn to Imriel’s story.

Imriel de la Courcel is a haunted youth. His mother is the most reviled traitor that Terre D’Ange has ever known, and though he tries to be good, the expectations of his fellow nobles (and their scheming) makes it tremendously difficult, if not impossible. When he travels to the ancient and weary city of Tiberium, he finds himself drawn into the clutches of the delicious and erotic noblewoman Claudia Fulvia, who is herself part of the Guild of the Nameless, a sinister group of manipulators. Ultimately, he has to confront his destiny and his responsibilities as a Prince of the Blood.

Part of the pleasure of the novel stems from the way in which Carey manages to make Imriel a fully-fledged character in his own right. This is not, in other words, a re-tread of Phedre’s story, but an entirely different narrative with different stakes and consequences for what happens. Imriel is haunted by his memories from his time as a prisoner of the Mahrkagir in Daršanga, as well as by the legacy of treason left behind by his mother. A great deal of the novel, then, revolves around his desire to be good, to overcome the darkest parts of his past and try to forge his own destiny.

But he is also haunted by something much deeper than that. Though he would rather it were not so, he is a member of the Shahrizai, and as such he has the power and legacy of Kushiel running through his veins. One of the most compelling (and disturbing) parts of the novel occurs when he grabs Phédre by the wrist and, upon seeing the flash of desire go through her eyes, knows that he must get away or risk destroying the genuine love and affection he has for her. As she always does, Carey ably demonstrates the complex, and sometimes contradictory, impulses that govern our actions and our feelings.

While he hopes to find some measure of peace and understanding Tiberium, the opposite turns out to be true as he is drawn first into the orbit of the noblewoman Claudia Fulvia and then into a war involving a minor city-state and, most startling of all, a ghost who inhabits his friend Lucius. The sequences in the city-state of Lucca are at once gritty and terrifying, a testament to Carey’s unique ability to draw us into a scene, whether it’s in the bedroom or on the battlefield.

As was the case with the first three volumes of this series, Carey has a phenomenal ability to capture the beauty and the terror of sexual desire. Imriel is driven by forces that he can barely understand, and the blood of Kushiel beats in his veins. Try as he might to escape this legacy, he finds that sometimes it is better to accept the flaws in one’s nature and to learn to use one’s scars as an opportunity for growth. Kushiel’s Scion demonstrates the extent to which we are shaped by our past experiences and traumas, even as we must also not let them completely confine and define us.

And, of course, hanging over all of this is the shadow of Melisande, Imriel’s beautiful, deadly mother. By this point, we know that she has come to be revered in some parts of Caerdicca Unitas as nothing less than a goddess, and Melisande, with her insightful eye for the main chance, has done little or nothing to discourage this belief and has instead used it to her advantage. It remains to be seen whether Imriel will have the chance to confront her and demand the justice that has long been denied.

By the end of the novel, there are still many things left unresolved, and it remains to be seen how Imriel will continue dealing with the legacy of his mother’s betrayals and his own obligations as a member of the royal family. I can’t wait to see what awaits him in the next volume of the series.