Fantasy Classics: “Naamah’s Blessing” (by Jacqueline Carey)

Warning: Some spoilers for the novel follow.

And so we come at last to the finale of the Kushiel books (at least, those that have been written so far), in which Moirin finds herself faced with yet another challenge, this time to pursue the missing Prince Thierry to the lands known as Terra Nova, where he has disappeared into the jungle, along with several of his fellows. Throughout the book, Moirin must confront the consequences of her previous actions, and she must at last come face-to-face with her one-time lover and now enemy Raphael.

Though it ultimately does have a happy ending, there are a few sacrifices made along the way. There is, of course, Queen Jeanne, whose death in the previous novel continues to cast a long shadow. And, in this novel, we unfortunately witness the suicide of King Daniel who, falling into despair at the news of his son’s supposed death, takes his own life, leaving behind his beautiful young daughter. As a result of Daniel’s death, Moirin finds herself one of the few in the realm who genuinely has the young princess’s well-being at heart, and the scenes between them are some of the most heartwarming in the entire novel.

Of course, the central tragedy of the novel belongs to Raphael who, afflicted by his guilt over his mother and sister’s death–along with the shred of the fallen spirit Focalor that still inhabits his flesh–tries to set himself up as a god-king in Terra Nova, and it is only Moirin’s timely intervention that stops him. Raphael’s tragedy is that, ambitious and brilliant as he is, he seems unable to realize (or accept) his own limits. As a result, he continues to push at the boundaries of the possible and the acceptable, plunging so far into madness that there is ultimately no salvation for him except through death.

As with the other entries in the Kushiel series, this book probes as some of the most vexing questions with which humanity has to contend: do the gods have a purpose for us, and if so, what is it? How do we know what to do in any given circumstance? In this case, Moirin can gain only small glimpses of her destiny, granted to her by Jeanne, who has been given a slight ability to change and shape events as they transpire in the world of the living. Time and again, however, Moirin has to make her own choices and how that they do not lead her astray.

What I’ve always appreciated about this series is the way in which Carey continues, throughout its run, to expand her lens to take in almost every continent of this fictional world. In this case, she takes us to Terra Nova, most of which has obvious influences from both Aztec and Incan cultures. Given that those have always been particularly fascinating to me, I’m glad that we got to see their equivalent in this fantasy universe.

And, I’ll be honest, while at times the novel does fall a bit into the white savior narrative pattern (Carey is hardly alone in falling into this trap; see also: George RR Martin), it is refreshing to see a depiction of the ancient cultures of Mexico and South America that doesn’t simply exoticize the or focus on their blood sacrifices to the exclusion of all else. This is not to say that Carey glosses over them, however. Even Moirin, who feels a measure of revulsion at what she sees as barbarian practices, finally has to contend with the fact that there may well be times when the gods call for blood and that in such times the only things humans can do is to offer it.

And, just as importantly, she also paints us a portrait of a world in which the dark and terrible forces of colonialism were allowed to follow a different path. Thanks to the influence of those from Terre D’Ange, there is now a possibility that there can be friendly relations between the two continents. Indeed, one of the good things that Raphael does is to ensure that Old World diseases do not decimate New World populations. It’s nice to think that, in some point in the distant future in this world, there might be a more peaceful and verdant future than the one that we inhabit in ours.

Perhaps most importantly, the novel finally gives Moirin the happy ending that she’s longed for, reunited with her family in Alba yet also with one foot remaining in Terre D’Ange. As with its predecessors, this novel is very much about the power of female desire and female friendships. And, once again, it is the essential power of these things that saves Terra Nova, and perhaps the very world itself, from calamity.

As I’ve said before, I’ve been dreading reading this novel for a while, because it would mean that I’d finally come to the chronological end of the saga. Now that I’m here, I have to say that I do feel completely satisfied with the way that things have transpired, both for Moirin and for the realms of which she is a part. It’s always so nice to read a book in which the main character ends up happy, her grand destiny fulfilled. Grimdark has its place, but so do novels like these.

I’d be lying, though, if I said I didn’t harbor some hope that Carey will one day return to this world, perhaps with either a prequel series of a sequel. Though, as far a I know, she hasn’t said she’ll do either of those things, I continue to think about the many issues that these novels have raised. While I might have finished them, I have no doubt that these will be some of the books that I return to again and again, whenever I feel the need to immerse myself in a world of beauty and desire and of terrible destinies fulfilled.

I can offer no higher praise than that.

Fantasy Classics: “Naamah’s Curse” (by Jacqueline Carey)

Warning: Some spoilers follow.

I’ve now finished the second volume of Jacqueline Carey’s third trilogy, Naamah’s Curse. It probably goes without saying, but I really enjoyed this novel and I am, of course, hard at work reading the third.

The novel begins with Moirin setting out on her journey to catch up to her beloved Bao. Though she finds him, she is soon kidnapped and sent north into the vast country of Vralia. What follows is a series of adventures in which she meets a fanatical Yeshuite patriarch, his sensuous and sensitive nephew, a powerful witch who commands a deadly jewel, and a lord of assassins. Through it all, she must rely on her love of Bao to see her through, as well as her native powers and abilities.

Much as I wanted to savour this novel, to take my time and really lose myself in its sumptuous prose, as always I found myself pulled inexorably along by the story. Like its predecessors, it is largely episodic, in that Moirin goes from mishap to mishap, learning more about herself and about the world in which she lives with each iteration. Here, we learn more about the burgeoning power of Vralia, which has continued to grow in power and importance. In particular, we see that the vengeful patriarch has plans to use Moirin to launch a terrible crusade against Terre D’Ange. Given that I’ve often wondered how Carey’s world would look with a Christian nation, I found this development rather exciting and, while Moirin manages to circumvent the zealot’s efforts, it does suggest that there might yet be a confrontation between two of this world’s great powers. This storyline thus serves as a cautionary tale about the destructive power of religious zealotry and the reactionary condemnation of the pleasures of the body.

Like any unwilling epic heroine, Moirin finds herself caught up in forces and events much greater than she can at first imagine, and this is certainly the case when she pursues Bao into this world’s equivalent of the Himalayas. There she must confront a woman known as the Spider Queen, who has managed to take control of a powerful gem that has the power to command desire. There are echoes in this story of Phèdre’s journey into the heart of Drujan. Like her predecessor, Moirin finds herself faced with a truly dark magic, one that, while temporarily locally contained, has the potential to expand and damage the world. And, like her predecessor, she recognizes the fundamental humanity at the heart of this seemingly evil creature, showing us that even those who seem beyond the pale of comprehensibility have their own reasons (both good and bad) for doing what they do.

Much as I liked the stories about both Phèdre and Imriel, I identify with Moirin in ways that I never completely did in the case of the other heroes of the Kushiel saga. Moirin, for better or worse, gives her heart very quickly and easily to those with whom she comes into contact. Whether it is Bao (arguably her one true love) or any one of a dozen others, Moirin always gives freely of herself and of her gifts. Of course, this means that she frequently finds herself in scrapes that it takes quite a lot of effort to escape, but this is part of what makes her such a compelling and sympathetic hero. After all, it’s not necessarily a bad thing to give one’s love freely, even if the costs to oneself are frequently harsh and exacting.

Though the novel is largely full of joy, there are a few moments of genuine sadness, such as when Moirin hears that her beloved Jehanne has died in childbirth. Given that we have already been led to understand just how deeply she feels for the Queen of Terre D’Ange, this is a particularly devastating blow (the fact that it is delivered by the vengeful Vralian patriarch makes it all the more difficult to hear). This is one of those moments in the novel that is a profoundly human and universal one, as we are led to feel Moirin’s anguish that she wasn’t able to be there for the woman that she loved at the end of her life. The fact that Jehanne’s shade manages to visit her in her dreams only partially offsets the tragedy of this storyline, though it is rather nice seeing Moirin get at least a little bit of closure.

I have one minor complaint about the novel, and that it falls a little too much into the white savior narrative that is such a problematic aspect of the west’s relationship with the cultures of the east. In this case, Moirin’s disgust at the caste system that operates in this world’s equivalent of India/Nepal is, from a western perspective, understandable, as is the fact that she is the catalyst that sees the beginning of the undoing of the oppression of the untouchables. As gratifying as this is, however, I do think that we should be wary of these sorts of fantasies that allow western characters to be the primary catalyst for social change.

Despite those flaws, Naamah’s Curse is a stirring reflection on the power of desire to provide a balm to the human spirit. As always, Carey’s command of her prose is powerful, and the sex scenes in this book are even more intense and visceral than in the other installments of the series. However, the true emotional heart of the novel is the relationship between Bao and Moirin. Much as the Kushiel series shows the power of desire, it also shows us how much a part of the human condition love is, and how central it can be to the ultimate triumph of good over evil. Carey excels once again at making us feel just a little bit better about the world.

I have to say, though, that I’m approaching the final volume of this series with some trepidation. After all, it will mean the final farewell to this beautiful world and all of its enchanting mystique.

Fantasy Classics: “Naamah’s Kiss” (by Jacqueline Carey)

Note: Some spoilers follow.

I have to admit to a bit of trepidation going into the third of Jacqueline Carey’s series set in her fictionalized Renaissance. I knew that my beloved characters from the earlier series, Phèdre and Imriel, were now mere historical figures and that the story centered on the young woman Moiron, one of the Maghuin Dhonn of Alba. I earnestly wondered whether I’d find myself drawn into this story to the same degree that I had with its predecessors.

I should have known better, and I should have trusted Jacqueline Carey. I loved this book from the first page to the last, and I’m already diving deep into the sequel.

Moirin is a young woman who stands astride two very different worlds. On the one side is her ancestral people of the Maghuin Dhonn, the very same bear-worshipers who played such a large role in Imriel’s story. On the other is her father, a D’Angeline priest of Naamah. Though she yearns to stay in Alba next to her beloved mother, she finds herself drawn inexorably across the, first to Terre D’Ange, where she becomes enamored of both a sorcerer and the queen herself, and then to faraway Ch’in, where she encounters a princess possessed by a dragon and a realm poised to be torn apart by war, sorcery, and a dark weapon that could unravel the world itself.

Once again, Carey manages to create a character who is at once both utterly believe and completely sympathetic. Unlike Imriel, who from the beginning was tortured because of what he endured as a child, Moirin has the advantage of having been raised in almost total innocence in the forests of Alba. There is thus a certain earnestness and sweetness to her character that makes you cheer for her, even as you sometimes wince at the situations in which she quickly becomes ensnared. For, as both a distant relation of the King of Terre D’Ange (her ancestress was Alais, the sister of Queen Sidonie) and as a woman who possesses great magical power, she is easily ensnared in the schemes and plans of those in power.

While the novel is told completely in first person from Moirin’s POV, it is also populated by a host of fascinating characters, ranging from the sorcerer Raphael (son of the Lady of Marsilikos) and Queen Jehanne to the Ch’in princess Snow Tiger and the warrior turned sorcerer’s apprentice Bao. All of them bring something unique to the novel, and Moirin, with her sensitive soul and natural inclination to desire, finds herself giving a piece of her soul to each of them in turn.

I’ll be honest. It was a bit refreshing to find myself reading a novel that centered so thoroughly on female desire. It’s not that I didn’t like Imriel, but his series was most definitely a male-oriented one. Moirin’s tale goes into far greater detail about the desires shared between women than even Phèdre’s story, and Cary brings her usual skill at conveying both the raw physical intensity and the transcendental spirituality that both make up the human sexual experience. I’ve said it before: Carey is one of the best authors around in terms of her ability to craft poetic prose.

Naamah’s Kiss is perfectly paced. This is the type of novel that’s a bit of a slow burn at first, as it introduces us to the world, its people, and its primary character. As always, we find ourselves navigating the same world that Moirin is, trying to determine who has exactly what motives. In the process, we learn a great deal about this world and its continued development. Make no mistake, things have changed quite a lot in the century since Imriel began his tempestuous relationship with his cousin Sidonie. Terre D’Ange has turned inward, even as some of its people yearn to explore the new world across the ocean. And in Ch’in, especially, new technologies are being born that might reshape this world or destroy it, particularly the development of gunpowder into fearsome weapons of war that are known (accurately enough) as the Divine Thunder. It remains to be seen whether and how the advances of modernity might affect this world that Carey has so thoroughly envisioned and whether, and to what degree, the people of the Maghuin Dhonn, as well as all of those who have an affinity with the elemental forces of the world.

Naamah’s Kiss also continues Carey’s trend of more thoroughly exploring the use (and abuse) of magic in her fictional world. Moirin, unlike her predecessors, does indeed possess a powerful magic that is a legacy of her people, and as the novel progresses she finds it both a blessing and a burden. It’s key to who she is as a person, and yet it is also a destiny that she must fulfill if she is to maintain any sense of herself as a daughter of the Maghuin Dhonn. Just as importantly, she also recognizes that sexual desire is a key part of that destiny and that, through it, she can heal wounds and encourage people to become better versions of themselves.

As with all of Carey’s works set in this work, Naamah’s Kiss is about many things: duty, destiny, family, desire, death, and war. What’s more, the story manages to be both intensely personal and also epic in scope, with a final moment with the dragon that is as moving and beautiful as one could ask for in an epic fantasy. Somehow, Carey manages to weave all of these various strands together into a coherent whole that leaves you, like someone who has visited the Night Court in the City of Elua, you find yourself both sated and wanting more. No matter how many times you enter the world of Terre D’Ange, it always manages to surprise you.

I’m already very much immersed in the next volume in Moirin’s journey, Naamah’s Curse, and I very much look forward to sharing my thoughts on it with all of you. Stay tuned!

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!

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.

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.

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?

Fantasy Classics: Kushiel’s Dart (by Jacqueline Carey)

Continuing on with my reviews of classics of fantasy literature, I’m turning my attention to the Kushiel series of books by Jacqueline Carey. The books, which were published throughout the 2000s and 2010s, have a (well-earned) reputation for managing to really do something new and exciting within the genre of epic fantasy. Combining elements of historical fiction, epic fantasy, and erotica, the series of books explores various issues related to politics, power, and desire.

Young woman Phédre is marked by a red mote in her eye known as Kushiel’s Dart, a sign that she is blessed (or cursed) to feel pain as pleasure. Sold into a form of indentured servitude by her impoverished parents, she eventually enters the sevice of the noble Delaunay, she quickly becomes adept in the art of politics and the bedchamber. Betrayed by the clever and cruel noblewoman Melisande, Phedre finds herself among the barbarian Skaldi and must use all of her resources–emotional, sexual, intellectual–to save her homeland and everything she holds dear from the relentless tide of invasion.

The world that Carey has created is as rich and textured as our own, and this often gives the novel the feeling of a historical novel as much as it is a fantasy one. This world has a history similar to ours, with a powerful empire that once ruled much of this world’s Europe, though here it is called Tiberium rather than Rome. Phèdre and her friends and loved ones live in a France-esque country called Terre ‘Dange, a land populated by the descendants of the demigod Elua and his companion angels. As our heroine journeys to various spots on the map, Carey immerses us in these worlds; even the barbarian Skaldi, who want to conquer the land of Terre d’Ange are painted in thoroughly human colours.

The plot is also very textured, sometimes to such an extent that it can be difficult to tell exactly what’s going on. To some degree, of course, this is a reflection of the Machiavellian intentions of the various characters, particularly Delaunay and Melisande; while the former wants to preserve the rule of the current royal house, the latter wants to seize the throne for herself. Each plays a

For all of its texture and length (this is epic fantasy, after all), the plot still moves at a lightning pace, moving us through the various pieces of the puzzle at top speed while also periodically slowing down to focus on the human aspect of the story. This allows Carey to explore the heights of triumph and the absolute depths of despair, and there are no characters in the book that are either completely evil or completely good. Even Melisande, the books ruthless villainess, is not entirely evil, and it is the magnificent complexity of her character (and Phèdre’s fraught relationship with her) that stands as one of the novel’s most important threads and, I would argue, its thematic and emotional center.

In terms of style, Jacqueline Carey has a tremendous command of language. There are only a handful of writers I can think of who manage to capture the sensuous and the erotic in a way that doesn’t come across as trite and cliche. The closest comparison I can think of is Anne Rice, who was also able to combine the historical and the fantastical through rich prose and imaginative world-building. And, like Rice, this book manages to straddle the line between hardcore and narrative fiction, and this gives the book a sensuous frisson that is unlike almost anything else that I’ve read. Thus, while there are very (sometimes very graphic) descriptions of sex, they are key to the plot rather than titillating in and of themselves.

Kushiel’s Dart is one of those very few novels that I’ve actually read more than once. It’s truly intoxicating in all of the best ways, immersing us in a world that lives and breathes, filled with all of the complexity and ambiguity of everyday life. Indeed, it stands as one of the primary inspirations for our own series, and while we cannot hope to achieve the heights of Carey’s own magnificent books, we hope we can at least come close.

Stay tuned for our review of the sequel, Kushiel’s Chosen!