Kushiel's Dart by Jacqueline Carey
Edited by Claire Eddy
Design by Heidi Eriksen
Published by Tor Books
Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel
Terre d'Ange is not precisely France, rather perhaps more what France would like to be, or even what we English-speakers would like to imagine France to be. A land of grace and beauty, where the arts of the lover are cherished and developed with the refinement of a culture more sophisticated than our own. A world a bit sideways from our own, where history went differently.
In the world of Terre d'Ange, the Crucifixion had an odd aftermath -- the spilt blood of the son of the One God mingled with the tears of Mary Magdalene in the womb of Mother Earth to create a new being. The blessed Elua is a creature who combines divine beauty with mortal frailties, and who goes singing even as he is driven into exile, such that his joy attracts the attention of a number of angels. After a lengthy sojourn through the eastern nations, he and his companions come at last to a beautiful land whose people welcome them. Thus was founded Terre d'Ange, the Land of the Angels, where even the lowliest goatherd is possessed of a grace and beauty that the princes of other lands would envy.
How much time exactly has passed between those events and the time of the novel is never clearly stated, although Phedre, the protagonist and narrator, gives the impression that it has been a number of centuries. The material culture enjoyed by the D'Angelines feels roughly equivalent to that of France at the time of Louis XIV, although somewhat more sophisticated in some regards, particularly personal hygiene (apparently Elua and his Companions passed the word about the germ theory of disease, since there is no hint in the City of Elua of such things as the habit of emptying chamberpots in the streets as was common in Paris even well into the eighteenth century). However, everything we the readers know is told us by Phedre, since this novel is told entirely in the first person, and due to her background and training she tends to concentrate primarily upon interpersonal relationships rather than technical details such as chronology or mechanics.
Phedre begins her story by recounting the circumstances of her birth and recollections of her earliest childhood, which permits us the readers to learn about her world right along with her. The daughter of a courtesan of the Court of the Night-Blooming Flowers, adepts of the angel Namaah who is said to have lain down with strangers for coin so that the Blessed Elua might eat during their sojurn in Bhodistan (India), Phedre had a less than ideal beginning in life when her parents eloped and set forth on an ill-fated trading journey to Tiberium (Rome). When they return nearly penniless, and her father's family refuse to support the family, her mother negotiates a bitter bargain with the Dowayne of Cereus House, the eldest of the Thirteen Houses of the Night Court, for her indenture to be fostered within the Night Court and trained.
It is not precisely slavery that she has entered, for Phedre has not been reduced to a rightless chattel, but she is no longer free to make her own bargains. And her future is in doubt, because beautiful as she may be, she is flawed: there is a tiny red mote in one of her eyes. This flaw may well disqualify her to serve as an adept in any of the Thirteen Houses, and will make it well-nigh impossible to earn her marque, the price of her bond which is symbolized by an elaborate tattoo which will be inked in stages up her back as she earns each portion of it.
Hope is apt to spring from surprising places, and a childish bit of curiosity leads to the discovery that for her pain and pleasure are one. Although the first inclination of the Dowayne's servants is to transfer her to Valerian House, dedicated to what is poetically called the "sharper pleasures," they decide instead to notify Anafiel Delaunay, a man of many talents, who is said to be interested in such things. He quickly recognizes the scarlet mote in her eye, which all others called a flaw, to be the fabled Kushiel's Dart, sign of an anguissette, one for whom the arts of pain and pleasure have deeper mystical significance.
But before Delaunay takes Phedre into his household, he wants her to receive more training in the Night Court, during which time she perfects her talents at escape and makes the acquaintance of Hyacinthe, a boy of the Tsingani or Travelers, an ancient people whose skill with horses is famous. Although he is called the Prince of the Travelers, he too leads a shadowy existence because his mother was disgraced and cast out from their people. Thus he and Phedre form an instant bond, one that continues even after Delaunay takes her into his household and begins her training. Delaunay regards her habit of escape and mischief with annoyed patience, but sets bounds upon it that he hopes will help to train her in another set of arts, utterly unlike those practiced in the Night Court.
Those are the arts of covertcy, for Delaunay is of course a master spy, his fingers on the intricate web of intrigue that runs through the upper echelons of D'Angeline society. Although Terre d'Ange is one of the most advanced nations in terms of material culture, certainly far in advance of their barbaric perpetual enemies the Skaldi (Germanic tribes), it is still beset with enemies within and without. This situation is made worse by the tenuous nature of the royal succession, for the Dauphin Rolande de la Courcel, the handsome and capable heir to the throne, was slain in battle, leaving his elderly and ailing father Ganelon with only a young granddaughter as Dauphine. Thus ambitious cousins have cast covetous eyes upon the throne, hoping that they can outmaneuver young Ysandre and exclude her from the succession to their own gain.
Delaunay is bound by ties of love to the late Dauphin, and as a result Phedre becomes immeshed in these intrigues. Functioning as an adept of Namaah, she is sent to a number of suspected conspirators, including the beautiful and dangerous Melisande Shahrizai, scion of a noble house who are said to descend from Kushiel himself, the "rigid one of God" who was once one of the One God's chief disciplinarians, until he forsake his place for love of Elua. Melisande is the only person whose pursuit of the "sharper pleasures" is intense enough to compel Phedre to give her signale (safeword), and even then it is with joy as much as agony.
And on the very night that Melisande gives Phedre a gift so large that it completes her marque, all those plans come to fruition. Suddenly the comfortable world Phedre had enjoyed comes crashing down around her, and she awakens in a cart on its way into Skaldia and slavery. Her only hope lies in the companionship of Joscelin, Delaunay's late bodyguard, trained by the famed Cassiline Order to be a superb infighter with both sword and dagger.
There she sees the other side of Melisande's intricate weaving of intrigue, namely the strengthening of the hold of Waldemar Selig over the various Skaldic tribes so that they would set aside the quarrels that usually divided them and instead unite against Terre d'Ange. Knowing that their homeland's fate lies in the balance, Phedre and Joscelin contrive a desperate escape through ice and snow, nearly dying in the process of bringing word home, for not all D'Angelines want the word to get through. Only her old friend Hyacinthe proves reliable, although he too is borne down by grief at the loss of his mother Anasztaizia to the fever that has recently swept the City of Elua, and provides her with safe conduct to the palace and the ear of the Dauphine, who now rules in the stead of the dying King Ganelon.
Phedre's travails are not yet over, for her new sovereign must secure the throne by fulfilling her betrothal to the ruler of Alba (England). To do so, he must be brought across the straits, and that means crossing a region of sea controlled by the mysterious Master of the Straits. When one of the sailors carelessly violates the conditions he laid upon their passage, Phedre learns just how bitter the pains of love and sacrifice can be. And thus, although there is triumph in the ending to this novel, it is a bittersweet one rather than a purely happy one. And in Phedre's promise to her first and oldest friend there is also a promise of more novels to come in this richly imagined world.
Given such an intricate world, it seems almost crude to go picking at loose ends. Yet unfortunately there are a few, evident to the historian's eye. Most glaring is the issue of the names, in particular the many names that derive from a specific historical background that would not exist in this world where Christianity as we know it never developed, nor was France the First Daughter of the (Catholic) Church. Not to mention Quintilius Rousse, whose name is Latin in form for all that he is supposed to be a fellow D'Angeline (or at least I caught no hint of Caerdiccine heritage in him, although in a book of this size and complexity it is certainly possible to miss small details even at a second or third reading).
Not to mention the problem I have with the D'Angelines having such advanced material culture in close proximity to extremely backward ones. In the case of Alba it's somewhat understandable as a result of the isolation that has resulted from the disruption in the Straits that makes travel perilous at best. But it seems strange that Skaldia should have remained practically unchanged, its inhabitants still dressed in skins and dwelling in rude long halls when they have almost constant contact with not only the D'Angelines, but the peoples of Caerdicca who are the heirs of the Tiberian Empire and still support a university to which even D'Angelines travel to obtain the finest education in the known world. There is almost continual trade between these nations, yet there seems to have been little or no cultural transferrence in what must have been centuries' time. Even if their sophistication is predicated upon their mixed human and angelic blood, one would think that given all their casual liaisons, D'Angeline genes would soon start filtering into the genepools of neighboring nations as well.
Yet on the whole the vision that Jacqueline Carey has created of a beautiful people and their intricate society of love and intrigue is so commanding that I can overlook the flaws and sink into the world.
Review posted January 15, 2009
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