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Kushiel's Dart
Jacqueline Carey
Forge Books, 701 pages

Kushiel's Dart
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. Kushiel's Dart is her first novel.

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A review by Victoria Strauss

A striking alternate-world fantasy from newcomer Jacqueline Carey.

In the land of Terre D'Ange, divine blood flows in the veins of men and women. D'Angelines trace their decent from Blessed Elua, child of Yeshua ben Yosef and the Magdalene, and from his company of companion angels, who abandoned heaven to follow him. More beautiful than other human beings, more gifted, freer of mind and body, D'Angelines live by Elua's precept: Love as thou wilt.

Phèdre, unwanted child of a former adept of the opulent pleasure houses of the Night Court, is born with a red mote in her eye. To most, this is an unsightly flaw. Only a few understand its rare, true meaning: Phèdre is an anguisette, chosen victim of Kushiel, angel of chastisement, called to receive pleasure in the form of pain. One who recognizes Phèdre's value is Anafiel Delaunay, a nobleman with a false name and a secret past. He purchases her indenture, and sets about training her as a singular and special courtesan -- and also as a spy, to serve his enigmatic quest for knowledge within the glittering tangle of D'Angeline court politics.

Phèdre grows up in luxury, trained in arts both physical and intellectual, with a quick mind and a talent for observing and remembering. But then Delaunay makes a mis-step in the delicate game he plays, and he and his household are betrayed. Phèdre finds herself sold into slavery among the contentious, barbaric Skaldi, with only Joscelin, the angry young warrior-priest who is her bodyguard, for a companion. But the Skaldi are not as disorganized as they seem. A leader has risen to unite them, and a deadly plot is afoot, threatening the freedom of Terre D'Ange. Phèdre must find a way to escape and bring warning to her homeland -- and to survive the consequences.

This big, bold novel is a skillful blending of several forms -- part epic adventure, part erotic odyssey, part chronicle of political intrigue. It's set in an alternate Europe, in a time that seems roughly equivalent to the High Renaissance (though there's a mix of cultural periods; some of the cultures Phèdre encounters, such as the Skaldi, are drawn from an earlier era). Part of the fun of the book is picking out the correspondences -- the Skaldi to the Germanic tribes, the Albans to the British, Caerdicca Unitas to the city-states of Italy, and so on -- and also the differences: the Albans, for instance, were never fully conquered by the Tiberian Empire (Carey's Rome equivalent), a fact that proves important to the story. These various cultures, and the complicated political conflicts that divide them, are exceptionally well-drawn -- a combination of real-world historical detail and imaginary politics so convincing you'd swear, at times, that you were reading a historical rather than a fantasy novel.

Some readers will no doubt be put off by Carey's frank depiction of Phèdre's unusual sexuality. But while the many sex scenes are clearly designed for effect, they are neither gratuitous nor unduly extended (and always very elegantly written). Moreover, Carey succeeds where many authors who adopt an erotic theme fail -- not just in making Phèdre's sexuality an integral part of the story, but in creating a complex, nuanced heroine who is defined by much more than her strange desires. No mere masochist, Phèdre is a woman who submits by choice and by calling, something that requires its own unique sort of strength. "What yields is not always weak," she's told at one point by a friend with second sight; and over and over, throughout the book, she proves it true.

There's much else to praise in Kushiel's Dart: the vivid cast of characters, the exciting plotting, the carefully-wrought details of culture and legend, the polished prose style (oh, what a rare treat it is to read a really well-written epic fantasy novel!). As with any large, ambitious work, there are some caveats too: the book is, perhaps, somewhat longer than it needs to be, and the important character of Joscelin, initially very strong, falls unfortunately into the background for much of the novel's latter third, robbing the ambiguous romantic resolution of some of its power. Overall, though, this is a really superior debut, integrating original themes, intelligent world-building, and skillful writing to an extent all too rare in today's fantasy market. It should immediately establish Carey as one of the most interesting and talented of the current crop of rising fantasy stars.

Copyright © 2001 Victoria Strauss

Victoria Strauss is a novelist, and a lifelong reader of fantasy and science fiction. Her most recent fantasy novel The Garden of the Stone is currently available from HarperCollins EOS. For details, visit her website.

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