Kushiel's Dart: Epic Fantasy, BDSM, and French Free Love Jesus
Jacqueline Carey sure is an ambitious writer. Publishing as her first novel an epic fantasy of just over 900 pages, featuring as its main character a masochistic courtesan living in a complex and complicated world, there are multiple ways it could have gone horribly wrong. But, because Carey is a very talented writer, what she has created is the beginning of what may end up being a classic epic fantasy series. Whether or not the rest of the series is any good, this first volume, "Kushiel's Dart," certainly is.
The world of 'Kushiel's Dart" is based around late medieval/early Renaissance Europe, with analogues to France, Germany, Italy, Ireland, Spain, England, and basically every other European country. The story centers around the nation of Terre D'Ange, which is basically Renaissance France. The major difference between Terre D'Ange and France revolves around reverence for Elua, an entity created from the mixture of the blood of Yeshua (the Jesus analogue for this world) from his crucifixion and the dirt of Mother Earth. Elua wandered the world with a troupe of rebellious angels spreading a gospel of free love, encapsulated in the commandment "love as thou wilt." This, combined with the activities of the angel Naamah, one of Elua's followers who got them out of several scrapes by granting sexual favors, led to the creation of an organization known as the Night Court made up of 13 houses of what are in essence holy prostitutes who fulfill an important and legitimate part of the high society of Terre D'Ange
Our protagonist, Phedre, was born of one of these courtesans who married a merchant. However, when times became tough Phedre was sold into indenture to one of the most prestigious houses of the Night Court, with the hope that she could join it or another house when she grew older. Unfortunately, the houses each have very exacting standards as to what their members can look like, and Phedre was born with a strange blood red mote in one of her otherwise brown eyes. It is only when a visiting noble, Anafiel Delauney, sees her that the mote is identified as Kushiel's Dart, a signal that Phedre is an anguisette, an extremely rare individual who feels pain as pleasure-- she is essentially a super-masochist. Delauney buys her service, and raises her, not only continuing her companionship training but also teaching her multiple languages, riding, and the powers of observation. For Delauney has something planned for both Phedre and her fellow ward, a boy named Alcuin...
The plot of this novel is incredibly long and complex (indeed, the above summary barely scratches what happens in the first tenth of the book), with many twists and turns. Phedre is our first person narrator, guiding the reader through her adventures and easing our transition into her world. She is a fascinating character, resolute, resourceful, intelligent and charismatic. It is great to watch her go from being of relatively low status in society to a position of much respect, only for her to crash to the bottom again and have to pull herself back up. She is both a character that you want to succeed and one who you easily believe could.
The world building in the book is also mostly good. Terre D'Ange is an interesting society, resembling France but not being exactly the same. Carey has obviously thought the setting through, and it really does feel like a real place. The only criticism that can really be leveled towards it is that it does at times seem like a little bit of a Mary Suetopia, with Phedre noting that the people of Terry D'Ange are more beautiful than their neighbors (supposedly because they are descendants of angels), and the fact that it appears to be more culturally and technologically advanced than the other two countries Phedre visits, Skaldia (i.e. Germany) and Alba (i.e. Britain), although this may be explained by both places having remained unconquered by the Roman Empire analogue in this world, meaning that both are still tribal civilizations. It's still a little jarring to read, however.
This novel most reminded me of George R. R. Martin's "Song of Ice and Fire" series, and anyone impatiently waiting for the next volume in that can slake their desires with this book and its series. Both series share an epic length, loads of interesting characters, a whole lot of very well done world-building, and a very complex and realistic morality (the Skaldic warlord Waldemar Selig who is the primary antagonist of the book is a not unsympathetic figure, and the other major antagonist of the story is also surprisingly charismatic, to give two examples). If you love Martin, you should also like Carey.
All in all, this is a wonderful book. If you are able to commit to its length (my copy was 901 pages, and this is the first of a nine book series), it is well worth your time. Check it out if you want an interesting story filled with amazing characters in an incredibly detailed and believable world.