Yet another hit for Amy, my sci-fi friend. She’s 4-for-4 now, by my memory: first she gave me a (rare!) copy of Thank Heaven Fasting (the non-sci-fi outlier); then lent me The Hemingway Hoax; then recommended Soulless and now Kushiel’s Dart.
This is truly an epic masterpiece of world-building. I will go so far as to mention J.R.R. Tolkien.
I am a little bit challenged to categorize this story further; sci-fi I suppose it is. It is also speculative fiction? These genres are a little out of my league! There is some romance; there is plenty of sex. There is political and courtly intrigue. Think Tolkien for the world-building, and then add Philippa Gregory for the courtly intrigue and playful sex, even Sharon Kay Penman’s attention to detail; but it’s never slow! Oh no, I read these 901 pages (901!) in a two-day weekend. Many long hours and some lost sleep, but well worth it.
I don’t expect to be able to do much with plot summation, but I’ll try and give you a taste. The people of Terre d’Ange worship the demigod Elua and his Companions; the words he gave them to live by are, “love as thou wilt.” Love – or more to the point, sex – is considered a form of worship, and an entire class of men and women are raised from birth to be Servants of Naamah, the goddess-prostitute. They’re trained, then, in courtly manners as well as sexual tricks, which they perform for fees until the House that trained them has been paid off, and then they are free to continue in business for themselves or to pursue whatever path they choose.
Phèdre would have belonged to one of the Houses of the Servants of Naamah, but she was born flawed, or marked, by the dart of Kushiel, the one of Elua’s companions who loves pain. For her, pain and pleasure are forever linked. She is raised by an individual, not a House, and trained for a specialized kind of service, one that combines pain and degradation with sex. Her patron/caregiver/adopted parent is Anafiel Delaunay, and he has more in mind than the profits of her work; he trains her not only as a very high-class courtesan, but as an information-gathering multilingual scholar-spy. It is unclear to the young Phèdre what Anafiel’s political goals are, but she is very talented at playing her own role in his game, and she is deeply committed. Anafiel is a beloved father figure.
All of this transpires in the first third or less of the book, but I’ll stop here. Phèdre gets involved in matters of state much larger than she could ever have expected, and it will take all her formidable skills to protect herself and those she loves – and maybe, to save her nation.
I found Kushiel’s Dart to be incredibly engrossing. I couldn’t put this book down; I just couldn’t bear to leave Phèdre in a predicament. I came to love and root for her companions; I was invested in this story. I recommend it to anyone who likes to get lost in another world – and the world of Terre d’Ange and her neighboring nations is most definitely “other,” although there are recognizable traces of our own.
Amy tells me that this is the first in a trilogy, and there are three trilogies; but she assures us that each trilogy stands alone. This first installment stands alone outstandingly well too, although I won’t say you won’t be tempted to keep reading further! She also assures us that the books, if anything, improve as the series develop. All good news there.
Has anyone else discovered these outstanding epic novels? Anyone tempted to? I recommend!