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Kushiel's Chosen by Jacqueline Carey

Design by Heidi Erikson

Edited by Claire Eddy

Published by Tor Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

In Terre d'Ange, that magical land that both is and is not France, Phedre no Delaunay has won fame and fortune for her daring deeds which enabled her beloved land to win a desperate war against the Skaldi, the barbarous Germanic tribes living on their eastern border. But it was not without its bittersweet element, for as the price of passage for the army that would save the day, her first and dearest friend gave up his freedom. Hyacinthe was born of the Tsingani, the people of the Long Road, and to be bound forever to a single island in the Straits which divide Terre d'Ange from the island of Alba is a truly dreadful fate. But he paid it willingly, for the alternative was to allow Phedre to pay it.

Now Phedre has set for herself the task of discovering the secret of the magic which binds him to that tiny bit of land, and it is not an easy one. She has reason to believe the Yeshuites may hold the secret, those people who are not precisely the Jews of our own world, for they have accepted Yeshua ben Yosef as the Messiah rather than rejecting him. But like the Jews of our world they are still scholars, given to deep and meticulous study of their holy scriptures which often takes on a mystical element. For the curse that lies upon the Master of the Straits is entangled with the punishment of the One God upon a rebellious angel, Rahab, and Phedre hopes that somehow the Yeshuites have lore of Rahab among their learning.

But she has no more than made contact with the Yeshuite school or yeshiva in the City of Elua, capital of Terre d'Ange, than she receives a summons from her sovereign, Queen Ysandre. Melisande Shahrizai, principal conspirator whose schemes had made possible the rise of Waldemar Selig in the Skaldic lands and his nearly-successful invasion of Terre d'Ange, has been fingered by her own family. But the betrayal has done little good, for she was able to escape and has apparently fled the country.

Which means there is a traitor in the innermost circles of the royal court, and the queen wants Phedre to find this person for her. Overwhelmed by the unexpected demand, Phedre finds solace in escape, taking a horse and wandering the City unescorted. When she sees a vendor with cages of doves, she decides to rededicate herself to the service of Naamah, the angel who lay down with strangers so that Blessed Elua might eat during their sojourn in Bhodistan (India). It must be remembered that the people of Terre d'Ange practice no blood sacrifices, but rather only living ones, setting a dove free in the temples dedicated to the angels they worship (for while they know and honor the One God, they regard him as too high and far away to be approached or asked favors). And the custom of one who is to be dedicated to the Service of Naamah is to release a dove in her sanctuary.

Following a tip from one of her armsmen, who had gotten into a fight with some rather talkative men involved in the guarding of Melisande, she focuses her interests upon La Serenissima, a city which is not precisely Venice. Before she goes there, she wants to know more about it, and what better cover for learning about it than to take one of its noblemen as a patron. Severio Stregazza is a man of mixed Serenissiman and D'Angeline ancestry, but because his upbringing has been almost entirely in that distant city, they take great pains to impress upon him exactly what it means to do business with a Servant of Naamah, for whom the arts of the courtesan have a sacred component as well as the merely erotic.

Severio Stregazza turns their encounter into an elaborate historical play, with himself clad as a magistrate of ancient Tiberium (Rome). Afterward he unbends and talks freely with her of the politics of his hometown, and in particular the implications of their being a republic, rather than a monarchy with a hereditary line of succession.

As a historian, I did find it odd that in a world that had otherwise gone so different should produce an equivalent to Venice which not only is a republic, but also uses the exact same title -- doge -- for its head. But it is a tribute to the power of Jacqueline Carey's writing that I only noticed it in a sort of abstract way, and was so interested in finding out what would happen next that the improbability of such a close convergence didn't put me off at all.

And the matter deepens very quickly when Melisande's kin have a falling-out that results in murder, and both killer and victim are implicated in her escape. So Phedre must take further assignations, hoping that her new clients will let slip vital clues during the course of their pleasures. She also takes other assignations purely on whim, hoping thus to avoid any pattern that might alert the conspirators to her being on their trail. But all the time the thought of Hyacinthe torments her, and in her few free moments from her work of spycraft she struggles to find the key to the curse that binds him, a task that constantly reminds her of the complex web of shared belief that binds Yeshuite and D'Angeline, yet simultaneously divides them.

Finally, tormented by dreams of dread that flee from her memory the moment she awakes, she turns to the adepts of House Gentian in the Night Court for assistance. They specialize in sleep and the meaning of dreams, and she knows at last that she can delay no longer -- she must go to La Serenissima.

It is a long journey that takes her through the eastern and southern parts of Terre d'Ange, including the city of Marsilikos which predates Elua himself. It roughly corresponds with Marsailles in our own world, but it is ruled by a Lady, a tradition that has dated from the time of Elua and his Companions, when the angel Eisheth ruled there. And then it is off by sea to La Serenissima, avoiding the difficulties of a trip overland through the mountains.

Reading the scene of their arrival in La Serenissima was rather disorienting, with its combination of the familiar and the alien. It was particularly strange to see the Grand Square with all its famous buildings save one -- instead of the Basilica of St. Mark, whose Patriarchs have produced three popes (Pius X, John XXIII and John Paul I), we have the Temple of Asherat-of-the-Sea. She is in origin a fertility goddess of the Levant, probably imported by the Phonecians, who is said to mourn her son who was slain by Baal-Jupiter, whose name represents a mingling of the names of the Tiberian and Phonecian chief deities.

Phedre interprets the story of La Dolorosa in purely humanistic terms, as a mythologization of the historical intermingling of the religions of conquerors and conquered. But things are rarely so simple in a world where angels once walked the earth and sired children on human beings. For while the D'Angelines refer to the One God, he does not claim the universal dominion of the deity of Judaism, Christianity and Islam in our own world. Rather, he is the only god of the Yeshuites and the D'Angelines, although the latter regard him as too distant to beseech in prayer and instead direct their prayers to Elua and his Companions.

However, D'Angeline and Yeshuite attitudes toward the gods of other nations are very different, as Phedre sees when she is returning from a delicate meeting with the retiring Doge. A column of the priestesses of Asherat-of-the-Sea are processing through the Great Square, and by custom all should bow their heads and avert their eyes. In respect. Phedre does so, since D'Angelines regard Asharat as an aspect of Mother Earth from whose womb Blessed Elua was born, but moments later there is a hue and a cry of anger at a Yeshuite youth who refused on account that his people worship the One God alone, and bow to no other nation's idols. Only Phedre's brave intervention saves him from being blinded, or her own followers from an ugly fight to protect him from that fate.

No more does she thread her way through that cultural issue than she must wade through the snakepit of politics, and in particular the forthcoming election of a new doge. And as she meets with various individuals of quality, the evidence mounts that Melisande is involved in some subtle and dangerous way. For the election of a doge in Phedre's world is not merely a political act, but a religious one as well -- the doge is considered to be spiritually married to Asherat-of-the-Sea, and thus the election involves holy things -- things that will be profaned if Melisande gains her objective.

But Phedre succeeds too well in her search, and discovers Melisande before all is ready. Instead of capturing the traitor, it is Phedre who is betrayed and captured to be taken away to the island of La Dolorosa, where it is said Asherat-of-the-Sea mourns her slain son. She had previously interpreted the myth in naturalistic terms, but as she is imprisoned there, it becomes clear that the terrible wails are more than merely the sound of wind over rock formations -- in this world the gods of other nations have objective reality, and their griefs can drive mortals mad.

However, Phedre will not be left there long enough to go mad, for Melisande's intricate conspiracy is drawing Queen Ysandre to her doom, and there is only a slender chance of averting it. When the prison comes under attack by forces unknown, Phedre grasps that reed and flees, hoping to get a message to her sovereign before it is too late.

Except it is not her servants coming to her rescue, as she had thought, but a pirate chieftan from Illyria, the land which roughly corresponds to Croatia -- except, one with strange and terrible magics. Such does Kazan Atrabiades bear, a blood-curse set upon him by his mother after he slew his brother -- should he ever enter the city of Epidauro, his home, the kriavbhog will surely take him and he will die. But in fact the killing was no murder, but the tragic fog of war -- his brother had taken a Serenessiman helmet and armor to disguise himself, and Kazan killed him by mistake.

And of course by entangling himself with Phedre and thus with Serenissiman forces that want her dead, Kazan is driven to make for Epidauro, like it or not. And then Phedre gets to see just how real the gods and spirits of other people can be, when she prays to Elua and Naamah only to be answered by a local deity, and to see Kazan in the grip of the kriavbhog, a sort of winged serpent-demon. That battle launches a storm that drives them to the south, to Temenos on the isle of Kriti (Crete), where they find welcome. And more, for the local priestess is a descendant of Minos and has the power to cleanse a man of a blood-curse -- except that Kazan is not the only one who needs spiritual cleansing, for Phedre bears her own burden of guilt.

By the time they return to Epidauro, they discover that they are already too late -- the election has been held in La Serenissima and there will soon be a new Doge, just in time for Queen Ysandre's arrival on her royal procession. It appears that Melisande will triumph in spite of all Phedre's efforts. Thus Phedre returns secretly with her new-found allies to reconnect with what few of her own people remain in La Serenissima in hopes of forming a plan to foil Melisande's treachery.

And I was happily surprised to see how the author was able to draw a happy ending out of what appeared to be inevitable disaster. Her world continues to be so rich in its detail that it convinces even when logically it should not -- I could actually see a world in which Venice was the home not of a Catholic Patriarchate, but of the worship of a Phonecian fertility goddess. And that is no small feat when one's audience is a historian by training, and particularly interested in the possibilities of how history might have been.

Review posted February 1, 2009

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