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Kushiel's Avatar by Jacqueline Carey

Edited by Claire Eddy

Published by Tor Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

Phedre no Delaunay de Montreve has gained fame and fortune for having twice saved her beloved Terre d'Ange, that beautiful land that is and is not France, from hostile forces without and intrigues within. She enjoys the confidences of her Queen, Ysandre de la Courcel, and her consort Drustan mab Necthana, Cruarch (ruler) of Alba (England). Phedre is a respected counselor in the Night Court, the Thirteen Houses of superb courtesans in which she was originally trained as a young girl.

But with all the blessings she enjoys, she cannot forget that so many of these things were bought by the bitter sacrifice of her first and dearest friend, Hyacinthe, Prince of Travellers, scion of the ruling family of the Tsingaini, the people who follow the Long Road. When a sailor unthinkingly broke the terms set by the Master of the Straits for the passage of the fleet bearing Alban forces coming to the rescue of Terre d'Ange from the Skaldi, Hyacinthe had offered himself to be bound upon the stony island by the ancient geas that had long sundered Alba and Eire from the continent. Phedre had promised to seek the secret of that geas and free him, but all her researches have given her only a storehouse of puzzling ancient lore.

Still she goes to visit him, hoping to find the answer to the puzzle of strange weather phenomena that have recently troubled the Straits. He tells her that the old Master has passed, after eight hundred years of terrible service to this ancient curse. He was the son of one of Blessed Elua's firstborn, who had been taken by force by the mysterious and treacherous sea-demon Rahab. Now that he is gone, Hyacinthe is now the new Master of the Straits, and he will leave them open so long as Alba and Terre d'Ange remain united by love. But for himself there is no freedom, which is painful for a man of a people born to the long road. His only hope is the mysterious True Name of God, a word that even angels must obey -- but while he can glimpse its existence, he cannot apprehend its form.

But no more than Phedre returns to the City of Elua and sets to work with her Yeshuite friends on the problem than she receives an unwelcome letter from an old enemy. Melisande Shahrizai, who had sought to betray Terre d'Ange to Waldemar Selig and his Skaldic tribes as part of an elaborate game of intrigue, is now drawing upon an old promise to secure Phedre's aid. So off Phedre heads to La Serenissima, where Melisande has taken refuge in the temple of Asherat-of-the-Sea, to find the nature of this terrible request.

It seems that her missing son has in fact been fostered secretly in the Sanctuary of Elua, a refuge high in the southern mountains of Terre d'Ange not far from Phedre's own landed estate. Ignorant of his own origins, he was supposed to be able to grow up free of the taint of his mother's treasons -- but instead he has been kidnapped by persons unknown, almost certainly for sinister purposes. Phedre's investigations soon reveal that, far from having been taken by conspirators in hopes of using him as a tool against the Queen, he was in fact snatched by slavers who had been promised extraordinary riches for D'Angeline children of unsurpassed beauty, who delivered him to a notorious slaver from Menekhet (Egypt), Fadil Chouma.

So off to Menekhet Phedre and her trusted protector Joscelin head, only to discover Fadil Chouma beyond any possibility of questioning. He is dead, and the D'Angeline boy sold after he'd turned and attacked the slaver, giving him a wound that went foul and ultimately killed him. As Phedre investigates as best she can, she has several troubling encounters with the mysterious bone priests, who are dreaded by everyone in Iskandria, Menekhet's Hellenized capital. They come from a distant land and are said to have so mastered the power of death that a word from one of them can strike a man dead. Not surprising when they come from what people call "the land that died and lives."

In a deeply fraught audience with Pharaoh, Phedre discovers the name of this land: Drujan. It was formerly a province of Khebbel-im-Akkad (Mesopotamia), until it sought to rebel and was brutally repressed. And then it rose again, under circumstances so frightening the Akkadians refused to speak of it, and bade Menekhet to permit the bone-priests to come and go but have no dealings with them.

Drujan lies in the area we know as the Caucasus, and its capital Darsanga roughly corresponds to Baku, capital of Azerbaijan. Like Baku, Darsanga is rich in petroleum deposits that lie near the surface, but unlike in Baku under first the Tsars and then the Soviets, they have never been industrially exploited. Instead, they feed endless flames that are regarded by Zoroastrians as sacred, and remained a center of Zoroastrian fire-worship even after Khebbel-im-Akkad crushed the Persian Empire and revived the worship of the old gods of Mesopotamia. When a leader arose to rally them around the worship of Ahura Mazda, the Akkadians crushed them, as Phedre reads in a scroll in the famed Library of Iskandria. For the Akkadians are heir not only to the Assyrians fondness for cruelty in victory, but in a savage glee in depicting it, whether in art or in writing.

And it is to this land that she must go to find Imriel. When she quails at the thought, Elua and his Companions appear to her in a vision and warn that if she does not fulfill the pledge she made to Melisiande Shahrizai, she will stand foresworn in such a way that they can no longer take countenance of her. Thus fortified, she heads northward to Drujan and the dark nightmare that is the palace of the Mahrkagir, the Conqueror of Death, as the ruler styles himself.

I hesitate to refer to the religion he has created as satanic, for that is not precisely theologically correct. When the D'Angelines speak of the One God, they mean it only in the sense that he is the only god the Children of Yisra-El worshipped, rather than granting him any universal jurisdiction in the sense claimed by the God of Judaism, Christianity and Islam in our own world. The D'Angelines themselves honor the One God, but regard him as too distant to approach and instead direct their prayers to the Blessed Elua and his angelic Companions. Neither the Yeshuites nor the D'Angelines believe in a supernatural Agent of Evil -- to them, evil is the failing of good, rather than an entity unto itself. But they also regard the gods of other nations as having reality, and respect the worship of those nations. And while most nations have a multitude of gods, the Zoroastrians are dualists, with Ahura Mazda, the Lord of Light, being opposed by Angra Mainyu, also called Ahriman, the Lord of Darkness -- the closest there is in that world to a Cosmic Bad Guy who exists primarily to further Evil as an abstract entity.

And the Mahrkagir has founded his power upon the worship of Angra Mainyu, who has granted the bone priests their terrible powers. That worship revolves around the abjuration of light in favor of darkness, and the twisting of the act of love into an act of cruelty and death. He searches for the perfect sacrifice, one so lovely and innocent that his violation will seal the power of Angra Mainyu over the world forever. He is convinced that a D'Angeline will be just that perfect sacrifice.

Only Phedre's strange abilities as an anguisette, pricked by Kushiel's Dart, enables her to not only survive the horrors of the Mahrkargir's Threefold Path of ill thoughts, ill words and ill deeds, but to remain strong in the face of them. She must draw upon all the knowledge of intrigue she has gained in Terre d'Ange to form and execute her plan to bring about his downfall and break the hold of Angra Mainyu over Drujan.

But her quest is not yet over, for there is still the matter of finding the key to the imprisonment of Hyacinthe, who was her first friend when she was but a whore's unwanted get. And that will take her back to Menekhet, and from there to the headwaters of the Nahar (Nile) and an ancient temple that has guarded its precious secret for centuries. And then to carry a sacred burden across two continents to the Straits and a confrontation with an evil eight centuries old, strengthened only by the power of love.

As I was going back through this novel, several years after I originally read it, I was struck by the thematic parallels with the recently-concluded Harry Potter series, in particular that of love as the most powerful magic of all. Of course they are handled in very different ways, since the Harry Potter series are children's books, in which the most obvious manifestation of love is that of a mother for her child and the love of woman and man is only glimpsed in the manner of young people first discovering one another, while the Kushiel books are clearly aimed at an adult audience and the amatory arts are dealt with in a frank and open fashion. But it is interesting to note the parallels between the villains: how the Mahrkargir styled himself "Conqueror of Death," a distinction Thomas Marvolo Riddle also sought in his pseudonym of Lord Voldemort, which has been rendered as "Ruler of Death." And much as Voldemort's followers are styled the Death Eaters, the bone priests of the Mahrkargir's cult of Angra Mainyu are often called Skotophagoti, eaters of darkness. Yet what I find most interesting is that, although so much of the Kushiel series centers around erotic desire, which is so often associated with lustful desire, in the end it is self-sacrificing love that still has the greatest power, as Phedre struggles through all manner of adversity to do right by the boy who was her very first true friend.

Review posted January 15, 2009

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