“Kushiel’s Dart” by Jacqueline Carey

Over the course of the past week, I’ve read a couple different blog posts that talk about how a lot of fantasy novels feature very traditional gender roles.  This novel, then, is something entirely different.

Carey’s story is a fantasy/alternate history set in the country of Terre d’Ange, which resembles medieval France.  Terre d’Ange was founded by rebel angels, the highest of which issued the command to “Love as thou wilt.”  This means that sex is seen as a form of religious worship.

The story revolves around Phedre, who is a masochistic whore.  I mean this in the best possible sense of the term; she’s the Mata Hari type of prostitute who also happens to be a spy, and is responsible for saving the kingdom on numerous occasions.  She also sleeps with most other major characters in the book.  Since sex is considered to be a religious experience, prostitution isn’t frowned upon in this society, but rather considered to be a noble calling.

One of the central ideas in the book is that even though Phedre may appear to be weak, and may be very submissive, she’s also extremely intelligent and competent.  She’s a very strong female heroine.

I did have a few criticisms–the mythology is thrown at you in great detail at the start of the book, and you’re expected to remember it.  I didn’t mind it, but it bothered a friend who also read it.  I caught a couple typos, but not enough that I couldn’t overlook them.  Also, I get the impression that Carey didn’t expect the first book in her trilogy to be as successful as it was, because she didn’t clear up how Phedre could sleep with everyone without getting pregnant.  But in this book, ah yes, it is fiction, and if we can believe in a nation founded by fallen angels then we can believe that a prostitute can have sex without birth control and will never get pregnant.  Oh, and it’s a happy land where STDs just don’t exist.

I really enjoyed this book, as it was something entirely different than I’d ever read before.  Just as a note of caution–if explicit sex scenes bother you, you might not like it.  If a few whips freak you out, you also probably won’t like it.  If lesbianism bothers you, you also probably won’t like it.  The book isn’t about sex; it’s about political intrigue and espionage, but it does have its share of sex scenes.  It wasn’t the sort of book I’d normally pick up on my own, but I was procrastinating and someone had left it on a coffee table.  I’d recommend it to anyone who’s looking for something different than anything they’ve ever read before, or who is interested in seeing the typical fantasy gender roles mixed up a bit.  It makes for good pool reading.

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Categories: Fantasy, Fiction | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments

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9 thoughts on ““Kushiel’s Dart” by Jacqueline Carey

  1. Anonymous

    I’m not sure exactly where, but Carey does explain the pregnancy thing (in Dart I think!) Women have to pray to Eisheth to enable their womb to open. Just FYI. ^^

    • Yes, but it wasn’t in the first book. I think it was in the third, but don’t quote me on that. =D

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  3. Have you read Kelley Armstrong? Quite different as well and the women are equally strong. It just reminded me because in my review (a while back) I also mentioned explicit sex scenes. Some – usually dark fantasy authors – handle it well. It didn’t bother me but I know it bothers many. I think this book goes a bit farther, not sure I would still like it but I agree it’s great when someone manages to write in an original way.

    • I haven’t read any Kelley Armstrong, but I’ll have to check it out. I don’t mind books with explicit sex scenes, provided the authors do it well. Certain romance novelists handle sex scenes in such a way that they simply can’t be taken seriously, and that’s when they get annoying.

  4. I despise stereotyped gender roles in books (which does seem to happen an awful lot in fantasy). It makes me find the characters less believable, and also less appealing. I like reading about a good strong woman. But I am somewhat tired of the “sex as holy” thing that also seems to happen in a lot of sci-fi (not sure about fantasy, as I don’t read it enough). It seems to me to be the same stereotyping and sexism as always disguised by “empowering” sex. Rarely in the books that I’ve read are there male prostitutes. It’s still just the women running about sexing people up for “god” or “power” or “prestige” or whatever, but in the end, they’re still just having sex because some man wants them too. Even if they enjoy their profression, it’s still (mostly) on the man’s terms. He decides when he wants it, so the power remains largely in his hands. I don’t know the scenario in this particular novel, so I’m obviously speaking generally here. It’s just rare that I see authors truly breaking out of typical gender roles. And maybe that’s okay. Just don’t pretend you are if you’re not.

    • Good point. There were male prostitutes in this book, although the focus is on Phedre more than any of the others. I don’t read that much sci-fi, just because I haven’t really found any sci-fi that I’ve really gotten into yet, but I know that in a lot of fantasy women only play minor roles, and it’s almost a stereotype that the token female characters end up getting raped at some point in the series. There are many exceptions, of course, and there are some fantasy novels with strong female leads, but generally women get pushed aside. I think maybe part of it is that a lot of fantasy writers aren’t terribly original with their plots and end up basically being Tolkein with the names changed.

  5. Thanks! I think it was really cool how Carey changed things up.

  6. Ugh, I hate it when the author, as you say, throws all the mythology at the reader in the VERY BEGINNING. I’m like, dude, let me unfold it myself during the course of reading!

    That being said, I love that you mentioned gender roles – not just in fiction, I think, in any genre, they feel simply ancient (and sometimes very misogynistic). I love to hear about the book that sort of tackles this tradition.

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