Kushiel's Dart by Jacqueline Carey
Hardcover - 704 pages (June 2001)
Tor Books; ISBN: 0312872380
Review by Amy Harlib
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An American art historian, Jacqueline Carey, produces an amazingly fine first fantasy aptly subtitled "a novel of passion, magic and betrayal" in Kushiel's Dart, set in a meticulously conceived parallel world version of Renaissance Europe in which geopolitical, cultural and religious manifestations are fascinatingly skewed from their analogs in consensus reality. 

The protagonist/narrator comes from the Mediterranean-like country called Terre d'Ange where the inhabitants believe themselves descended from angels born from the mingling of the tears of the Magdalene weeping over the sacrifice of Yeshua ben Yosef, (a Christ equivalent), with the blood in the earth below him. The great Earth Mother used the ensanguined soil to form Blessed Elua, the most beloved of Angels and 8 followers who embody various aspects of his sacred precept, "Love as Thou Wilt". The D'Angelines, according to their concepts, descended from these demi-gods, (of so our heroine Phedre informs us), interpret this message quite literally and regard all forms of intimacy as holy acts of worship, including those we would find anathema in our culture. 

Phedre, "a whore's unwanted get", at a young age, is sold into one of the Houses of the Night Court where the highly developed arts of sexual expression serve simultaneously to bring pleasure and to honor the higher powers. Phedre, of pleasing appearance, possesses a distinguishing red pinprick mark in one eye, the eponymous Kushiel's Dart of the rare "anguisette", whose gift is to enjoy all types of sensual stimulation including pain. When the noble Anafiel Delauney buys Phedre's bond, he treats her like a favored daughter, training her to be literate in several languages and in politics, history, philosophy and the arts of pleasure while also encouraging her to hone her observational and critical abilities to become a valued courtesan and a capable and unobtrusive spy. 

Allowed to accept only those clients she chooses, Phedre receives payment in the form of rich gifts and gathers information for Delauney's enigmatic purpose which he declines to divulge although his intrigues seem connected to the Royal Family, regnal succession and revenge motives. Phedre becomes the unwitting victim of Melisande Shahrizai, Delauney's former partner, now rival, a cunning and ruthless antagonist whose intricate Machiavellian machinations include not only Delauney's destruction but also the rule of Terre d'Ange. Unable to stop Delauney's downfall or to resist Melisande, Phedre, betrayed along with her sworn companion/bodyguard, a warrior-priest named Jocelyn, gets sold into slavery among the northern barbarian Viking-like Skaldi. 

Eventually, Phedre and Jocelyn make a grueling escape and journey back to their homeland to deliver a warning of immanent invasion, the beginning of adventures involving: banned poets; scheming courtiers; deposed royalty; daring sea voyagers; fascinating Albans (analogous to Celts); gypsyesque Tsingani (including a reunion with childhood friend Hyacinthe); unexpectedly heroic traitors; an embattled Queen; and rare but significant manifestations of a supernatural nature. Reminiscent of masterful works of the imagination by Guy Gavriel Kay or such as Richard Adams' Shardik and Maia, Jacqueline Carey's Kushiel's Dart maintains a distinct voice in its narrator/heroine who, like all the characters, leading and supporting, possesses deeply dimensional complexity and believable motivations. 

Phedre, with her perceptive, unsparing gaze and wry wit, records her thrilling adventures and personal growth, (she comes to see her 'gifts' as both a curse and a blessing while never losing her religious zeal). She manages to convey a sense of a rich and varied world full of layers of history, tradition and cultural diversity. Most fascinating and potentially controversial are the descriptions of a wide variety of sexual practices with partners of every gender and persuasion, never gratuitous and always tinged with the sacred potential of every such encounter according to the beliefs of that world. 

Kushiel's Dart, despite its length, offers such a riveting yarn of intense emotions, intriguing background details, compelling personalities, provocative blends of Christianity and Paganism and spiritual sensuality that readers will finish it satisfied yet eagerly awaiting the sequel hinted at in the concluding passages. Recommended for a mature, non-judgmental audience, brilliantly presenting its non-standard notions of magic and morality, the epic 'Kushiel's Dart' by turns grandiose and intimate, pierces to the core and resounds long in the memory.

2001 Ernest Lilley / SFRevu