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!