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July 2003
© 2003 Ernest Lilley / SFRevu
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Kushiel's Avatar by Jacqueline Carey
Tor HCVR: ISBN0312872402 PubDate: April 2003
Review by Iain Emsley

702 pages List price 27.95
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Jacqueline Carey Interview with Iain Emsley

Phédre no Delauney is one of those rare characters in modern fantasy who has caught the imagination of those fortunate enough to have read this series. It would be a disservice to wheel out the clichés about her being independent and feisty, rather she is a well observed character who acts within her own ethical framework, human yet somehow ethereal, fated to be a pawn in a cosmic game that has been fought before. In Kushiel’s Avatar, Carey extends her range in a most impressive manner – the characters become something different, loose ends are tied up and the world is made still more magical.

Carey takes us back to the events of Kushiel’s Dart, when Hyacinthe took Phédre’s place as the Master of the Straits to aid the Queen of Terre D’Ange. Melisande summons Phédre to La Serenissima to tell her that her son has been kidnapped from safekeeping in Terre D’Ange. Despite the slave trade being illegal, the trial takes Phédre and Joscelin to the East, where the come across a cult that will test the Cassiline promise of protection to its limits whilst also plunging them into a true Heart of Darkness. Having found Melisande’s son, the travelling pair travel into the Jebe Barkal to find the Lost Tribe and discover the Word which will release Hyacinthe.

Whereas most Fantasy worlds are content to remain static, to never grow, Carey has consistently pushed the boundaries of her alternate Europe. As the tattoo has grown and been retouched on Phédre’s back, so has the world. Whilst developing an alternate Europe, we are also taken to an alternate Africa and Middle East and given a grand tour of the deserts and the bazaars.

As Joscelin and Phédre travel through the empty wastes and encounter the cult of Skotophagotis, the boundaries of the religions are developed, tracing them back to their roots, challenging the way in which they have been interpreted. She manages to develop the mystical side of them and to bring this to a serious fruition with the solution that neatly binds her main concerns together in a satisfying manner, one that works on many levels for the casual reader and those more au fait with the Kabbalah.

Throughout the series, the philosophy of the BDSM boudoir has been explored. Carey explores this with a verve and sensitivity towards the subject rarely seen. Developing her characters around the examination of Love, she manages to tie up the various threads that she has set up.

Kushiel’s Avatar is a grand finale to this series and shows how Carey has become a writer who must be read by anybody concerned with excellent characters and worlds. Carefully thought out, this series has matured in itself and still captures the imagination and the heart. More please…

Jacqueline Carey Interview with Iain Emsley

SFRevu: Are your books a comment upon current Fantasy writing and the majority of women characters? How did you come to create Phédre? She certainly remains in the mind of the reader long after the books been put down.

Jacqueline Carey:At the end of the day, after all the research and plotting, there’s a part of writing fiction that remains a mystery; which is to say, I honestly don’t know where Phèdre came from. From the initial conception, she was who she was; an unabashedly masochistic courtesan/spy. It was in the process of determining whether or not I had the skill to pull it off without devolving into sensationalism that I considered ways in which the book could comment on broader issues: the subtext of eroticized violence emerging in the fantasy genre, the cliches of heroine-as-victim. The idea of subverting those tropes by turning them inside-out very much appealed to me, and ultimately inspired me to take what amounted to a major creative risk. Still, Phèdre is a writer’s gift, and one I’m grateful to have received.

SFRevu: You use BDSM in an interesting fashion, not as a means of domination from one sex over another, but as an expression that deepens as time goes on. Can you expand how you came to use this and also how you view the philosophy behind it?

Jacqueline: Given the nature of my heroine, incorporating BDSM was inevitable! The challenge here was to do it in a respectful and responsible manner. I think, or at least hope, that the way in which it’s utilized is more reflective of attitudes in the actual BDSM community than one sometimes finds in Fantasy. The notion of consensuality as a sacred tenet is a good example. Exploring personal boundaries in any forum, sexual or otherwise, requires a tremendous amount of trust. That was an important element to convey. On another level, it’s allowed me to examine issues of desire, will and power and how those play out between individuals, and on a still deeper level, to examine themes of compassion, sacrifice and redemption.

SFRevu: “Love as thou Wilt” is the driving force behind the novels, leading the characters to act in fashions that they may not have done. There is a theme that love is perhaps more difficult or certainly, as powerful as conflict. How far would you agree with this? If not, why not?

Jacqueline: I agree, definitely. I wanted to explore the idea of a deity whose sole attribute is Love; Love as a divine force, terrible and awesome. In D’Angeline belief, Elua is the Prime Mover, and Love is his lever. Over and over, it forces a number of characters into making difficult decisions (not least of which is my poor, much-abused Joscelin).

SFRevu: Have you found that writing these novels has changed as the world has gradually expanded with your characters? How has the world-building process manifested itself for you whilst writing the series?

Jacqueline: I haven’t found the world-building process has changed, just expanded. One of my readers dubbed it ‘cafeteria style’ alternate history, which is pretty apt. I pick and choose, combining and inventing elements to my own taste. The most significant change over the course of the trilogy was the shift from Chosen to Avatar. After ten years, the characters were deeper, more mature, and the tone changes accordingly. The world-building remains as much fun as ever. Research without footnotes, yay!

SFRevu: What led from the non-fiction book on angels to the creation of Elua and his host in novel form? Were you pulling from a specific myth or a range of myths?

Jacqueline: As it happens, I already had Kushiel’s Dart in mind, so I used the opportunity to write the Angels book to do a lot of the research for it, reading apocrypha, pseudepigrapha and Jewish folklore. The primary myth appears briefly in Genesis, an account of fallen angels begetting children on mortal women. It’s related in detail in the pseudepigraphal Book of Enoch. Elua himself is a syncretization of the wandering Dionysian fertility god myth with the Judeo-Christian messianic tradition; the chthonic and the celestial, as it were.

SFRevu: Is there a Gnostic path to Phédre’s journey at all?

Jacqueline: It wasn’t something I sought consciously to evoke, but there are certainly elements of it, particularly in Avatar, which traces a path that spirals downward to self-abnegation and outward to self-knowledge.

SFRevu: Do you have a tattoo of a rose at all? How, and why, did you come up with such an image?

Jacqueline: No, I don’t. I’d considered getting a similar tattoo at one point, which is probably where the idea originated; instead, it turned up in my writing. Once it did, I opted not to get the tattoo. Somehow, it felt as though it belonged to Phèdre now, not me. The floral motif was a natural extension of the Court of Night-Blooming Flowers (whose symbolism, by the way, derives from the Victorian ‘language of flowers’), and the briar rose seemed singularly appropriate.

SFRevu: There is an air of accountability to each of your characters, that actions have consequences some down the line. Can you expand upon this at all?

Jacqueline: It’s something that’s important to me, maybe because I grew up during a time when the idea of accountability was superceded by the doctrine of plausible deniability. It disturbs me, both in life and in fiction. A fictional world in which consequences are glossed over always feels a bit two-dimensional to me. Nothing we do takes place in a vacuum. Whether we acknowledge them or not—whether we know them or not—there are always consequences. And from a purely dramatic standpoint, when characters are aware of the consequences of their actions, it raises the stakes.

SFRevu: What are you currently working on? Are we going to see more of Phédre or are you going to take a break from the world for a while?

Jacqueline: Actually, I just delivered a new manuscript with the working title Elegy For Darkness. This is a stand-alone in a multiple 3rd-person POV, which was a change after being immersed in Phèdre’s voice for so long. It’s an epic fantasy in the classic Tolkienesque vein, with one twist: It’s a tragedy written from the perspective of the ‘minions of the Dark Lord.’ It will be interesting to see how it’s received! After this, I’m considering revisiting Terre d’Ange, though the story, if it continues, will do so with a different protagonist. I’ve been thinking about it for quite some time.

SFRevu: Growing up, when did you first get interested in SF/Fantasy? Do you remember your first book?

Jacqueline: It was The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe, and I must have been seven or eight. I devoured the rest of the Narnia books, moved on to Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain chronicles, and kept going from there.

SFRevu: Were you a writer as a child? That is, did you make up your own stories?

Jacqueline: Not really. I had a vivid fantasy life, which isn’t exactly the same. It wasn’t until I was around 16 that I began writing.

SFRevu: What do you read these days, and who do you feel you have something in common with?

Jacqueline: I’m an omnivorous reader. Fantasy, science fiction, mysteries, thrillers, romance, travel, history, humor, horror, classics, mainstream; if it sounds good, I’ll try it. I thought The Corrections was brilliant, though a panel of SF writers recently assured me I’m quite mistaken! Within the genre, I feel a strong kinship with Guy Gavriel Kay’s work, primarily because of the powerful way he utilizes myth. Religion feels like an actual living faith in his work, not a plot device. He’s one of the few fantasy authors who has moved me to tears. Richard Adams, too, for the same reasons. Although her style is more spare than mine, I love the lyrical quality of Patricia McKillip’s work, and those small, still moments she creates around which her plots pivot. I also admire the gritty, visceral reality of George R.R. Martin and Mary Gentle. They ‘give good war,’ as someone once said of my work.

SFRevu: Why do you write genre? Do you feel a stronger affinity for one genre or another?

Jacqueline: It’s a labor of love. There’s nothing like opening the pages of a book and falling into it; surrendering all sense of time and place and self, knowing that you’re embarking on one hell of an adventure. Fantasy, when it’s good, does it like no other. As a reader, I love that feeling, so it was natural to try to invoke it as a writer. That’s not to say I won’t explore other genres or mainstream fiction over the course of my writing lifetime, but I do have a definite affinity for Fantasy.

SFRevu: How do you write? Do you plan out your books before you start? Do you write every day? How did you conduct your research for the main characters? When you write, do you think about the reader, or just the story?

Jacqueline: I plot out the books fairly thoroughly before starting. There’s too much intrigue woven too intricately for me to function without knowing where the story is going. I also do a lot of research in advance, so I need to have a good mental road map of the territory I’m covering. Most of the research I do is for the purpose of world-building or action rather than character development. It’s a scattershot method—once I know what I’m targeting, I rummage around in libraries or online to find source material, appropriate the elements that inspire me, and weave them into the whole.

While I’m working on a novel, I try to write every day, anywhere from 2-6 hours. During the writing process, it’s all about the story and the craft. Ultimately, that’s the highest consideration I can give the reader: To write the best book I possibly can.

SFRevu: What does Fantasy offer that Science Fiction can't? Why is gaining popularity among readers?

Jacqueline: Fantasy is the literature of archetypes. It traces the classic hero’s journey and reaffirms the idea that one person can affect change in the world. It’s hard to say why that’s particularly appealing at this moment in time. Maybe because we live in an era of burgeoning corporate conglomerates, where it’s easy for the individual to feel disenfranchised? Fantasy offers an alternative; a doorway onto a world where courage, passion and hope matter in a profound sense. For many readers, that’s a place worth visiting.

Unlike Fantasy, Science Fiction isn’t a timeless genre. It’s always racing evolution; the evolution of technology, of society, of ideas. Our accelerated culture has nearly caught up with Cyberpunk, which was the last major wave of Science Fiction. So I think the genre’s on a bit of a plateau at the moment, waiting for someone to find the Next Big Thing that will fire readers’ imagination. What it will be, I can’t guess, but I’m sure it will happen. And Fantasy will still be there when it does, because we will always need stories that breathe our dreams into life.

SFRevu: Does writing have a role in shaping people's worldview?

Jacqueline: Absolutely. It may not be as pervasive as, say, television, but every avid reader can cite at least one book that had an impact on their worldview, especially in the formative years. I can think of two. One was Mary Renault’s The Persian Boy, which I read when I was ten years old. “To hate excellence is to hate the gods.” That’s a line that stuck with me, made me think about the person I wanted to be. Another book was Lloyd Alexander’s Taran Wanderer, from which I learned the adult and disturbing notion that our heart’s desire isn’t always granted. Powerful stuff for a little kid!

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