Tor, $7.99, ISBN 0-765-34298-7
Fantasy, 2002 (Reissue)
Bear with me as I try to figure out how this book came to be touted as erotic and daring. Erotic? Yeah, in 1802, maybe. No, wait, Victorian erotica will put this non-explicit, inept erotic fantasy to shame. If the the mere concept of bisexuality and sado-masochism shocks you, maybe this book will be “daring”. But if erotic to you is details, details, even cursory details, this tame S&M/bisexual fantasy (the author practises the “fade out” when it comes to love scenes) is as daring as your Grandma Tootsie’s outdated dirty jokes.
Maybe “daring” is Jacqueline Carey’s transparently taking the religion of Christianity and tweaking it so that the prophets are worshiped as demigods. The heroine Phèdre nó Delaunay is of royal blood who is sold to slavery – it’s a long story. She is trained to be a courtesan – an adept of Naamah, a goddess fashioned after Mary Magdalene, for Naamah was a courtesan who practiced sex and distributed her skills in the name of love for Jesus, er, I mean Elua. (Direct your flames to Ms Carey, please. I didn’t create these things.) She and her fellow adepts of Naamah are trained to gather and lure secrets from their lovers to further their Pimp Daddy’s standing in the Night Court.
Our heroine Phèdre is special. She is born with one eye as red as… well, people think she’s touched by Kushiel, the demigod/angel of S&M fun. As a result, they call her “Kushiel’s Dart”. She soon finds herself plunged in court intrigue that culminates in the obligatory fantasy road trip adventure with friendly stereotypes.
Don’t expect something as lush and forbidding as those Masquerade BDSM eroticas or even AN Roquelaure’s Sleeping Beauty trilogy, and you’ll probably be less disappointed than I am by the lack of gritty details in the, um, pivotal scenes. Like I said, the love scenes fade out, leaving the reader only with a quick “he pulls him to her” or “she pulls her to her” foreplay thingie and wham! Next scene, the aftermath. All that mojo for nothing. Bah.
Wait, maybe “daring” here is the fact that the heroine and her fellow courtesans begin their training since the age of ten. Nothing is explicit, but there is always an undercurrent of pedophilia hovering over the pages.
The world where this story is set in is equivalent to our Renaissance era, where trade is booming between barbaric lands, distinctly Arabic lands, and distinctly European kingdoms. It’s very richly detailed, although the author chooses a way of conveying details that happen to be my pet peeve (more later).
I want to love this book because this is a noticeably feminist book. Phèdre controls her own sexuality and she can control others with it as well. Never once, despite her situation, is she a victim. Readers looking for a way to fill the void of hardened heroines the way authors like Gayle Feyrer do so well can try this one, really. One of the most compelling elements in this story is the doomed romance between Phèdre and Joscelin, a Paladin-like knight sworn to oath to protect her while (he) remaining chaste.
But several things really distract me from my enjoyment of this story. First, I spend so long wondering what the heck is Kushiel’s Dart. Who is Kushiel? When I finally realize the answer, my mood is already off a little. For characters in their early to late teens, Phèdre and her fellow courtesans and streetwise friends do not think or talk like teens. They think and talk like hardened and cynical forty-year olds. One could argue that being courtesans can age them faster than anyone else, but these kids actually spend a better part of their time being pampered like harem girls. The cynicism and their lifestyles don’t gel, so I can’t help but to think that Jacqueline Carey can’t write decent teen characters.
The worst, however, is the author’s use of too much exposition as a way of laying down details. The characters here, after a bout of (I guess) vigorous sex, talk about court intrigue in the afterglow. Court intrigue! The first half of this book is essentially nothing more than the characters telling each other – and me – in lengthy details about the intrigue, background, history, culture, and what-not of this world the story is set in. Sex, food, toilet, and hygiene are only necessary interruptions to what seems like a long, long history-cum-geography lecture. Let’s continue our fascinating dinner discussion of who murdered who after we have S&M sex, darling, and then we can take up where we leave off the moment we stop panting, yes?
I can think of some ways the author could use as alternative to lengthy expositions: flashbacks, or heck, let the story flow naturally and letting the details slowly flesh out on their own sweet pace? When characters start talking about details the author want the readers to know regardless of whether the time or mood is right, the end result is me feeling as if I’m eavesdropping on geography and history scholars with no lives.
Take away the hype, Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Dart is actually a pretty good story with a nice, strong heroine. But her writing style cheeses me off. Man, I really hope that she discovers some ways to vary her exposition in the next book or all that details she put in her world will have gone to waste.