Jacqueline Carey‘s novel, Kushiel’s Dart, is a highly entertaining, ambitious, and complex novel. She creates a culture that branches off from our own western civilization, requiring her to create all aspects of the civilization, from the religion to the ethnic groups to the geography. Much of the mundane aspects of life are carried over from our own history. These mundane aspects are not important to the story, however.
The novel is told from the point of view of Phédre, a grown woman recounting her life from earliest memories of childhood through to early womanhood. Phédre’s earliest memories involve finding out that she is flawed. In the world Carey created, to be flawed physically is to be quite limited in one’s options. When her parents can no longer afford to keep her, they sell her into indentured servitude to Cereus House. Cereus House is one of a number of houses of pleasure in Terre D’Ange, where the story takes place. Unlike the other children being raised in Cereus House, however, Phédre is never supposed to know what it is like to become an apprentice in the House, an adept, and to make her “marque,” which will lead to being a free woman. This is because she is flawed; she has a tiny red mote in her eye that precludes her from ever serving the patrons of Cereus House. For many years, she lives under the assumption that she is somehow not as good as other people.
When she meets Anafiel Delauney, she finds out that she is special. He identifies her gift readily, with one look in her eyes. She has been struck by Kushiel’s Dart, meaning that she has been chosen to serve him. She also learns that she is an anguisette, a person who feels pleasure and pain simultaneously. Anafiel decides to take her into his household. She joins him and a boy named Alcuin, who is around her age. Anafiel provides them an education, not only in what it is to serve Naamah (provide pleasure to patrons, basically), but to be observant, to think critically, to remember things in detail, to speak numerous languages, and to appreciate history. Anafiel does this for reasons that the children are not privy to; his agenda is dangerous and he intentionally leaves them in the dark. What they do not know will not hurt them, as the saying goes.
Rather than give away the rest of the story, I will stop there. It is about at that point that the story picks up ferociously and we start to understand the need for all of the reader-preparation in the previous pages.
The weave of relationships is tightly bound in Carey’s story. Relationship is probably the most important aspect of the story, but it is not until near the end that we discover all the connections, which makes the story to us like a painting that has been rehabilitated after years of dirt and dust. Although parts of the story might be disturbing to those who are more prudish than others, the rest of the story is so worth the read that those parts can be overlooked, in my opinion.
Phédre is a strong woman who doesn’t know just how strong she is until she is tested. That is a lesson we can all learn. If you have a chance, read the book. You will like it.