Speculative fiction is indeed like a vast city. There are the luxuriant parks and discrete villas of staid literary fantasy, industrial wastelands with miles of aged pulp factories (many with a fresh coat of paint but same product), the hard sf quarter and its high, barbed-wire walls, the ghettos and slums of overt horror, the Bohemian block of New Weird, the old city and its alternate history, the recently constructed apartment blocks of urban fanasy, the endless suburbs of epic fantasy (and the grungier side-streets of grimdark), the shining, multi-story commercial district with latest releases, and, of course, the lengthy, wide open boulevards of mainstream genre. In my ramblings through the city, perusing books available on the boulevards, I’ve encountered many titles, looking for those which will end up moving to more respectable neighborhoods. There is one that has routinely appeared (seemingly on opposite ends of the city and unlikely corners), enough to make me take interest: Jacqueline Carey’s 2001 Kushiel’s Dart.
Praised by a wide spectrum of genre, Kushiel’s Dart seems a winner from both men’s and women’s point of view. From fans of paranormal romance to epic fantasy, erotica to historical fiction, a wide range of readers profess its qualities. Having now read the novel, I understand the boulevard appeal. The pace is neither too fast or too slow. The setting is fully tactile. Introduced slowly and developed with plot, the characters brew into life. It’s sprawled across a European-esque continent and featuring a recognizable yet altered Christian myth. Relationships and social interaction are handled with a deft, revelatory hand. Titillating the reader, sexuality is a key component. The prose, while occasionally purple, is a sight or two better than a lot of other commercial efforts these days. And lastly, and perhaps most importantly, the heroine is a strong, semi-relatable (at least understandable) character who consciously bends when the circumstances require so that at opportune moments she can go rigid and get what she wants—anything but standard fantasy heroine fare.
Phedre is a child born to unwed nobles. Her parents’ relationship unconsecrated, the king forces the couple to sell their daughter if they want to marry. And thus it is that into the one of the rich ruling houses Phedre is sold as a slave. Possessing a scarlet mote in her eye, something that marks her as unique in a dangerous way, she is later sold into another house, one whose owner is desirous of the mote’s portent. There receiving a classical education, after coming of age she is put to work as a premier class consort, sleeping with the city’s wealthiest patrons, all the while gleaning information for her house’s owner. Eventually caught in a cabal that threatens not only her own life but those she values, Phedre’s life disintegrates and she is sent to lands and amongst people where the web of relationships she had built is no longer valid. Left to fend for herself, she must use what talents she has to survive. And survive she does.
While the dominant motif of Kushiel’s Dart is something like geisha-dominatrix, the latter sections of the novel, however, find Phedre coming into her own, learning the ways she can use her talents to get what she wants, and eventually to become her own woman in epic fantasy style. This character development is something that really set my headgears turning in terms of feminism. The relationship between dominated/dominating a major part of the the thematic import, there are moments Phedre is beaten cruelly and others where the beating is part of a larger social picture, she, in fact, the one in control. This genderized interplay fascinating, my thoughts oscillated between “…not so sure that’s a representation of progressive feminism” to “Phedre may indeed be an agent of her own fate, the tools just atypical for literature…”
I’m not willing to say, however, that Kushiel’s Dart is a hotbed of discussion on feminist or gender theory, simply that there are related issues inherent to the text. (I would love to see a contemporary feminist examination of the novel.) More George R.R. Martin than Margaret Atwood, Carey’s intentions are foremost epic entertainment. And the novel delivers on that front. Though starting slow, it develops into a continent spanning journey that tests Phedre’s integrity and will, conspiracies drawing her into a major cabal that has implications and full drama. The sex related in, how to say, formal terms, there’s lots of ‘phallus’, ‘sheathing to the hilt,’ ‘engorged’, ‘grinding,’ ‘tumescence’, and other such representations of overt sexuality. Every reader will have their own tastes whether this is over done, under done, or just right.
Kushiel’s Dart is an accomplished debut novel and successful amalgamation of many genres and sub-genres of fantasy. (When viewed through a certain lens it can even be viewed as science fiction, the transformed Christ myth capable of a ‘future history’ label.) Displaying a smooth lexical range, there is emphasis on the tangible details of life (physical features, particularly eye and hair color, clothes, interior decoration, and food), as well as the “Medieval” life of decadence (poetry, masked balls, the details of stable, livery, and sigil, tea time, and other delicately aesthetic aspects of life). A bodice-ripper in the non-standard sense, there is a lot of sexual content, often of the S&M variety.
All in all, fans of Guy Gavriel Kay’s A Song for Arbonne or George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire would enjoy it, as would most fans of paranormal romance—something which Kushiel’s Dart, and the many books in the series that followed, undoubtedly had a hand in launching into popularity. Interestingly, I also found Kushiel’s Dart a more subtle inversion of male-female dominance than the ham-fisted methods of Kameron Hurley’s The Mirror Empire. Where Hurley simply features a wife beating a husband, zero sub-text, Carey digs further into the male-female physical relationship, touching upon the motivations for sexuality and violence, and comes up with something more human than Hurley’s She-man comic book presentation.