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

Having survived his ill-fated adventures in Tiberium and Caerdicca Unitas, young Imriel returns to Terre D’Ange hoping to begin life anew. All too soon, however, he finds himself falling desperately, madly, dangerously in love with his cousin Sidonie, the daughter of Queen Ysandre and thus heir to the throne. Desperate to avoid the treason that his mother was infamous for, trying to be the good person that he knows he can be, he agrees to a marriage with Dorelei, an Alban princess. In doing so, however, both he and Sidonie violate Blessed Elua’s most sacred precept, “love as thou wilt,” and in so doing set in motion a series of events that will leave lives ruined and ultimately lead Imriel on a desperate quest into the frozen north in the search for both vengeance and absolution.

The Kushiel books have always been known for their explicit descriptions of sex, and this one is no exception, and the sex scenes between Sidonie and Imriel are particularly graphic. These portions of the book definitely slip into the zone of genuine erotica, and that is definitely a compliment. Carey has an almost uncanny ability to capture both the physical rush of sexual pleasure as well as the deeper emotional and philosophical implications that almost always attend upon the carnal meeting of two bodies. It’s this combination of both the titillating and the deeply meaningful that makes these books such a pleasure to read and that marks them as something unlike almost anything else that has ever been attempted in modern fantasy.

If the original Phédre trilogy was characterized by its notoriously byzantine plotting, Imriel’s story is far more narratively slim than its predecessors, but that doesn’t detract from the pleasures of the story. Indeed, Imriel is as compelling a hero as Phédre, though of course he carries around scars that are significantly different than hers, and of course he has to contend with his heritage as the son of one of the realm’s most notorious traitors and with his bloodline as a scion of Kushiel. Thus, while we might not always agree with or condone Imriel’s actions, we do nevertheless understand them as at least in part a function and result of the tangled skein of his inheritance and his experiences.

That being said, Carey still manages to explore some of the weightier philosophical issues that have always been one of the most enjoyable aspects of the series as a whole. As he always has, Imriel strives to be good, to do the things that everyone wants him to do, even if that means going against his own heart’s desire. The novel constantly asks us to consider how we would respond if we were to be placed in the same situation. Would any one of us be able to put aside true love for the betterment of others, even if in doing so we might inadvertently endanger more lives? More significantly, the novel asks whether there is ever the possibility that knowing the outcome of the future

And, as always, Carey’s world-building is nothing short of flawless. In this novel, we get a more in-depth look at the life and customs of Alba, whose people are deeply proud of their heritage and yet also deeply superstitious. We get glimpses of the dark magic that is a part of their history, particularly among the bear-witches of the Maghuin Dhonn. We also get a deep look at the land of Vralia (an analogue of Russia), in which the Yeshuites have started to establish a kingdom of their own. One of the things that has always fascinated me about Carey’s world is its lack of Christianity as a hegemonic faith. In Kushiel’s Justice, we get the first glimmerings that this might not be the case for much longer, as it is increasingly clear that the Yeshuites wish to create their own nation with its own laws. The real question is how this will impact the doings of Terre D’Ange, as well as the wider world of which they are both a part.

Because, of course, there is as always an element of politics in everything that Imriel does. Though they hover in the background to a greater extent than previous entries in the series, as the novel draws to a close we get the sense that Imriel and Sidonie and all of those that we love will once again find themselves caught up in a maelstrom of intrigue and, just possibly, bloodshed. After all, Imriel’s mother is still abroad and still part of the Guild, and her legacy taints his every move. And, looming over it all, there is the fact that his relationship with Sidonie, whether conducted through marriage or not, could well rip asunder the fragile peace of Terre D’Ange.

In the end, Kushiel’s Justice is a masterful exploration of the intertwined nature of desire, duty, love, magic, and politics. It is a novel that both calls out to be savoured like the finest wine yet also gulped down in one sitting (though, given its length, that would be a tall order indeed). Once you fall under its hypnotic, sensual spell, you’ll find yourself reaching the last page and wandering how it is that you got there and where the day has gone. You’ll suffer right along with Imriel, but you will also experience the true, searing power of love and desire in all of their myriad joys.

I’m currently diving into the last volume of the Imriel trilogy, Kushiel’s Mercy, and it already feels like it’s going to be at once terribly tragic and tremendously satisfying. If the jacket is any indication, we’re finally going to get to see Melisande again, and I am both dreading and desiring to see how this transpires. And, of course, it goes without saying that I am very much looking forward to seeing how the relationship between Sidonie and Imriel turns out, and whether either of them will be able to enjoy the love they have long sought.

Stay tuned!