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Kushiel's Chosen
Jacqueline Carey
Tor Books, 704 pages

Kushiel's Chosen
Jacqueline Carey
Jacqueline Carey was born in 1964 in Highland Park, Illinois. After receiving B.A. degrees in psychology and English literature, she spent half a year living in London and working in a bookstore, travelling once the work permit expired. Upon returning to the U.S., she embarked on a writing career, travelling when possible, thus far ranging from Finland to Egypt. She currently lives in western Michigan, where she is a founding member of the oldest Mardi Gras krewe in the state.

Jacqueline Carey's Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Kushiel's Dart

Past Feature Reviews
A review by William Thompson

Jacqueline Carey's debut novel, Kushiel's Dart, easily made any number of "best" lists for fantasy this past year, skillfully blending eroticism with a smart mix of intrigue and world-building buoyed by imagination as well as a well-turned phrase. In equal parts romance, with its courtesan heroine and mantra of "love as thou wilt," the author wisely eschewed the overblown characterization and stereotypes of an Elizabeth Haydon while working with a more assured and graceful prose than typical of the common dallier in fancy or make-believe. As room was left at the first novel's conclusion for future developments, those who enjoyed Kushiel's Dart might reasonably have expected to look forward to the sequel. However, Kushiel's Chosen languishes somewhat in comparison, regardless of continuing its predecessor's polished prose and inventive, often stylish taste for libidinous titillation and intrigue seasoned with a liberal dash of deviance.

In the aftermath of the first book, Phèdre, now the Comtesse de Montrève, had retired to her country estate, leaving the political intrigue of the court as well as her devotion to Naamah behind. However, as certain loose threads were intentionally left unraveled in the last novel -- most notably malign nemesis and intrigante Melisande Shahrizai -- the unexpected return of a lost sangoire cloak should startle no surprise. Announcing Melisande's continued presence and spidery interest in the world of Terre D'Ange politics, as well as marking the opening move in her next ploy for power, the delivery of the cloak spurs Phèdre to return to her earlier role of spy disguised behind the blandishments and seductions of an anguissette. Her return to the Court and City of Elua, however, is not welcomed by everyone, especially her paramour and bodyguard, the Cassiline apostate, Joscelin Verreuil.

The story quickly tangles into a web of suspicion and intrigue, as Phèdre seeks to discover where Melisande has gone to ground, as well as the hidden allies that abetted her earlier escape. Investigation and rumor soon leads Phèdre to the canals and ancient, water-world splendors of La Serenissima, where she becomes ensnared in various plots to succeed an aging and doddering Doge. Caught between stratagems too devious and complicated even for her skills to discover or master, Phèdre falls prey to enemies where least expected, leading to prison, piracy, barbarians and the mysteries of a more ancient culture that will once again place Phèdre as the only, if unlikely, hope to save Terre D'Ange and her queen.

If, in basic outline, this seems broadly similar to events that transpired in Kushiel's Dart, you would be right, though this revisiting of past plotlines in and of itself would not necessarily be cause for concern, were it successfully recontextualized -- after all, any number of authors have to varying degrees re-mined their own material for ongoing series, as is evidenced by the work of Robert Jordan, Raymond Feist, Terry Goodkind or even George R.R. Martin. Sometimes the reanimation works, other times, depending upon the skill of the author or the number of times they have chosen to dip from the same well, the attempt falls flat. In the case of this sequel, the succeeding tale appears not as fresh, the purloined world of Serenissima lacking the vividness and vigor of Carey's earlier depictions of the Night Court found in her first book. Perhaps it is that the reader has already become too familiar with the author's eclectic borrowing from other cultures that continues here, an at times intriguing blend of Judaism, Christianity, Grecian myth and Eastern European folklore. However, in many respects, this remains one of the stronger elements to Carey's writing, with the cosmology of both religions turned significantly upon their heads, or as evidenced by the rather gripping incorporation of the kríavbhog haunting the mast of Atrabiades' ship.

No, the problem does not reside in Carey's often imaginative use of historical and cultural icons and artifacts, any more than it necessarily dwells in a repeat or excuse for Phèdre's new adventures. Instead, the difficulty exists in a seeming lack of tightness of focus upon the story, the narrative seeming more a pretext for its own growth than a natural outcome of any internal evolution. One becomes aware that a story is being told, that entertainment is being served, that the author is attempting to construct a tale for our amusement. Unfortunately, that amusement cannot truly be attained as long as the reader remains aware of the writer's manipulation, of the effort in being led.

Unlike her first book, Kushiel's Chosen never entirely achieves an identity or life of its own, and in many ways the choice of adjective in the title appears, in hindsight, significant. Worse, a certain smug and self-congratulatory element has crept into the author's rather middle class mugging of De Sade, in the form of asides on the part of the main character. Phèdre has become far too pleased with herself to retain our entire sympathy, an estimation and portrayal not always borne out by events in the book, such as her failure to recognize Severio's identification of the guardsman on page 130, an instance where Phèdre falls victim to her own increasingly romanticized and overstated characterization.

Perhaps my mild disappointment with this novel is but further proof of the "curse" that purportedly dogs sequels or any supposed second book of a series. While I don't believe in such nonsense -- one need only look at Robin Hobb's Mad Ship or Steven Erikson's Deadhouse Gates for notable and recent exceptions -- it may nonetheless have relevance when it comes to the pressure an author may experience when attempting to match the success of a previous book. Little question Ms. Carey quickly decided upon a sequel. But perhaps it would have been better had she waited, for unfortunately the second book lacks much of the invention and verve of the first, never fully stepping out from under its shadow. Intriguing possibilities that could have taken the story in unique and potentially pregnant directions, such as Joscelin assuming the role of mashiach, are developed and toyed with only to be ultimately dropped and abandoned. While well crafted, Kushiel's Chosen really becomes little more than just another venue for adventures, its identity and action largely predicated upon that of its predecessor, with little not already established in the first novel to separate or distinguish it from any other. Perhaps the resulting modest reflection will satisfy readers through its reminiscence or mimicry of the original: any number of franchises, from automobiles to books to burgers can serve as evidence of the allure of imitation. And my guess is that many who enjoyed the first book will also relish the second. The only question is, comparatively, how much and by what measure?

Copyright © 2002 William Thompson

William Thompson is a writer of speculative fiction. In addition to his writing, he is pursuing masters degrees in information science as well as history at Indiana University.

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