Kushiel’s Dart by Jacqueline Carey

imageSo that is what I am, then, my child-self thought; a whore’s unwanted get.
‘It is not–‘ My mother’s voice trembled.
‘It is my offer.’ The ancient voice was pitiless. She will sell me to this cruel old woman, I thought, and experienced a thrill of terror.
Is it any wonder, then, that I became what I did? Delaunay maintains that it was ever my destiny, and perhaps he is right, but this I know is true: When Love cast me out, it was Cruelty who took pity on me.

When still a child, Phèdre nó Delauney is sold into the service of the Night Court, the legendary pleasure houses of Terre D’Ange. Little does she know that the flaw that marks her out, the spot of red in her eye, is in fact the legendary mark of an anguisette, one who is destined to find sexual pleasure in pain. Armed with this remarkable talent, she enters the household of a mysterious nobleman, who trains her to be his personal spy. Soon she is part of the glittering Terre D’Ange court, but when she uncovers a plot that threatens her homeland, and is betrayed into captivity, she must risk everything to save the land she loves.

I have loved this book, and its many sequels, for years. Phèdre is such a wonderful heroine — she’s courageous and talented, and yet she still screws things up all the time (and it’s amazing how many obstacles can be dealt with by her offering to spend the night with someone strategic). The central romance in the book is a study in how two people whose situations forbid their relationship must compromise over and over again to stay together, in a mature depiction of an ongoing partnership.

However, it’s the setting and worldbuilding that really draw you into this book. I’ve classified it as alternate history, as Terre D’Ange is an analog of France, and the rest of Europe is similarly recognisible, although it’s hard to pinpoint exactly where the point of divergence from our history is. But the world of the Terre D’Ange (literally, Land of the Angels) court, with its rituals, politics and intrigue, is so exquisitely drawn that you want to dive right in, and the contrast between the sophisticated life of luxury and the real hardship Phèdre suffers in the later parts of the book is particularly stark.

Perhaps it is not surprising, given Phèdre’s talents, that this book features rather a lot of sex. Indeed, the motto for Terre D’Ange is Love as thou wilt, meaning that any sexual preferences should be indulged (between consenting adults), and quite a few of these are, let’s say, explored in this book and its sequels. By turning sex almost into a religious act, the author makes situations that might sound a little tawdry into something beautiful.

However, at its heart, Kushiel’s Dart is simply a fun mystery adventure story, which I suspect is the reason for its enduring success.

Kushiel’s Dart is available from Amazon.

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