I should first tell you that I generally don’t read fantasy. I am not a fan of epic quests in foreign unpronouncable realms by a superfluous cast with equally unpronouncable names. During college days I read Tolkein’s “Lord of the Rings” and confess that, while I did enjoy it, I was not inclined to pick up anything else like it. I am equally not keen on reading a story about a hero and his furry-beast friends who must conquer through magic and swordplay some evil warlord to save some helpless damsel in distress. Okay, not all epic fantasies are that transparent but they do tend to adhere to Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey”—to a fault.
Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Legacy by Tor Books consists of three rather large books: Kushiel’s Dart (a hefty 910 pages); Kushiel’s Chosen; and Kushiel’s Avatar, with a fourth and fifth in the saga, based on another character (Kushiel’s Scion and Kushiel's Judgement). Kushiel’s Legacy is definitely an epic fantasy. But, thankfully for me, it couldn’t be further from its stereotype. Epic, yes—in size, scope and granduer. Fantastic, also, in its brilliant imagination and masterful delivery. But it is so much more.
According to T.M. Wagner (SF Reviews.net), Carey “eschews the mythic aspirations of traditional high fantasy…[and] has created one VLFN that stands above the bloated pack”, taking “Fantasy into shadowy, exotic corners it rarely dares to tread” (Storm Constantine). William Thompson (Revolution SF) found this “seductive novel…exceptionally well-written, intricately plotted and [displayed] a grasp of language and storytelling rare in fantasy fiction.” To be sure, several readers of traditional fantasy complained that the language was “too flowery” and the books too long and overfull with detail and characters. This is precisely why I liked it. It reads like classic literary fiction. But it isn’t!
Chapter One of Kushiel’s Dart, the first of Carey’s three books focussing on Phèdre, begins with Phèdre engaging us with a conversational narrative that seamlessly and instantly lures us into her fascinating world. And lured I was; by the end of the first page I learned that her parents gave her a name that was cursed and that Phèdre, herself, was flawed: by a scarlet mote, a pinprick of blood emblazened in her left eye—which is enough in this land of aesthetics obsessed with beauty to mark her as blemished. She only later learns the significance of the mark; it is Kushiel’s Dart, left by a god who has chosen her to forever experience pain and pleasure as one. Thus begins our relationship with an ‘imperfect’ girl who was eventually outcast and sold by her mother—as “a whore’s unwanted get”—into indentured servitude in a House of the Night Court (a bordelo). It was the tag line of the first chapter that convinced me that a stirring tale of breathtaking intensity and shocking beauty was unfolding before me:
“When Love cast me out, it was Cruelty who took pity upon me.”
Kushiel’s Legacy is set in an alternate quasi-medieval Europe, Africa and Asia of Carey’s imagination. For instance, there is Aragonia, Caerdiccia Unitas, and Skaldia, loosely representing Spain, Italy and Germany, respectively. And there is Terre d’Ange (land of angels), Phèdre’s homeland, a place of unsurpassing beauty and grace, and whose beautiful race, created from angels and men, lived by one simple rule: Love as thou wilt. The D’Angelines were descended from the Blessed Elua, an interesting, rather warped, vision of the traditional Christ figure, and his angel companions who abandoned Heaven to follow him as he walked among mortals. Among Elua’s companions is the angel, Naamah, who willingly prostituted herself in service to Elua; Cassiel, who abjured mortal love for the love of the divine; and, of course, the mighty Kushiel, of rod and weal, the just Punisher of God, whose blow of pain was the touch of love. Those “kissed” by Kushiel receive both pleasure and cleansing through the infliction of pain.
Early on in Kushiel’s Dart, Phèdre’s bond is purchased by Anafiel Delaunay, an arcane nobleman with a secret past, who recognizes who and what she is—an anguissette, one who can experience pain as pleasure. While his motives elude her, Delaunay tutors Phèdre as a spy and rents her out to influential members of the decadent aristocracy to learn their secrets. When one of Delaunay’s games gets the better of him, he is murdered and young Phèdre is cast on a path of intrigue and treachery that she, as Kushiel’s Chosen-Avatar, is singularly able to endure. Thus, she sets off on her hero’s journey—aflame with betrayal, sacrifice, scintilating desires, and conspiracy. She encounters a rich and diverse cast of cunning poets, heroic traitors and a truly Machiavellian and seductive villainess. And to balance this is her loyal Cassiline bodyguard, Joscelin, her “Perfect Companion”, who eventually becomes the compass of her heart.
True to her heroic stature, Phèdre harbours, in both her words (it is she telling us the story) and her mien, no bitterness or resentment for the cruelty and hardship destiny has dealt her. And she does more than simply endure it; she answers the hero’s call to play out her role as Kushiel’s Chosen. Phèdre is a singularly appealing and complex hero because she is non-judgemental, ethical and honourable yet incredibly vulnerable, reckless and stubborn at times. She poses a panoply of opposites. She is, after all, an anguissette: her pain is her pleasure; her yielding is her strength, her wanton behaviour her salvation, her servitude her victory; and her love her courage. Phèdre is “an unflinching yet poignantly vulnerable heroine” (Booklist), whose selfless yielding will conquer the strongest and most depraved of foes. “Not all that yields is weak,” Hyacinthe, her best friend, tells her. To yield is Kushiel’s precept and the moniker of the House of Valerian, dedicated to the just Punisher. And yield, Phèdre must—and does; until it becomes her strength and her legacy just as love and honour become her driving force.
One is reminded of Christian parallels of yielding, tolerance and sacrifice in the acts of Jesus and his disciples. Phèdre walks a balanced moral path, following the precepts of her D’Angeline angels—Kushiel’s justice; Naamah’s passion, Cassiel’s loyalty, and, of course, Elua’s love—toward redemption for more than just herself. Carey’s exotic blending of Christianity and paganism, daringly poses the question of “the sacred potential inherent in every sexual encounter.” (Booklist). Wholly embracing her gods, and at great cost to herself, Phèdre gives herself away—sexually, and more—in Kushiel’s Avatar to rescue an innocent boy and ultimately to save her friend, Hyacinthe, from a wrathful god.
“Mortals conquer and slay; gods rise and fall. The games we play out on the board of earth echo across the vault of heaven.” (Kushiel’s Chosen)
Some readers have complained, nonetheless, at the inapropriateness of a prostitute as heroine. But, like many heroes with humble often dubious beginnings, Phèdre is one chosen by a god, who provides her with the opportunity to demonstrate that her heart and soul are far from base:
“We pay for sins we do not remember, and seek to do a will we can scarce fathom. That is what is is, to be a god’s chosen.” (Kushiel’s Avatar)
Yet for all that, this tale is not for the squeamish or the judgemental. As Kirkus Reviews contends, Kusiel’s Legacy is “superbly detailed, fascinatingly textured and sometimes unbearably intense,” punctuated with highly erotic and, at times, disturbing sexual episodes. The hero is a masochist, “whose disturbing sexuality drives the story… [which is as]…delicious as it is unsettling” (Emma Bull). T.M Wagner (of SF Reviews.net) sums it up eloquently: Kushiel’s Legacy “is the real thing, a distaff examination of sex and power, unflinchingly forthright.” And, he adds, “on no account is it recommended for faint hearts or weak stomachs.” Indeed, I was equally spellbound and greatly disturbed by Phèdre’s last great tryst with evil’s desire in a place of true madness where souls are currency (Kushiel’s Avatar). Her experience in Daršanga to rescue young Imriel, Melisande’s son, will endure in my memory for a long time: the terrible things Phèdre endured; the devine way she prevailed. She overcame it all because of the divine love that shone brightly inside her (her name means “bright” in Greek). It empowered her to shine hope to the hopeless. But the experience left her shattered, in pieces. Make me whole, she later prayed in the Temple of Isis, make us all whole.
Kushiel’s Legacy is not a romance, although it is a great love story. It is a complex saga, woven with layer upon layer of threads revealed through a metaphoric tapestry, often counterpoint with contradiction and turbulent conflict of morality and values. This journey of self-discovery by a young child journeying into womanhood explores some of the deepest and most cherished virtues of humanity, by courageously dismantling “standard notions of…morality” (Locus). Virtues like honour and loyalty. Family. And love. Love, in all its aspects:
Innocent love—a trusting love for a mother in the act of abandonment: …She will sell me to this cruel old woman, I thought, and experienced a thrill of terror…My mother stood with my hand in hers and gazed down at my upturned face. It is my last memory of her, those great, dark, lambent eyes searching, searching my own, coming at last to rest upon the left. Through our joined hands, I felt the shudder she repressed.(Kushiel’s Dart)
Dangerous love—a curious love of forbidden flesh: “Phèdre.” My name only; Melisande spoke it as if to place a finger on my soul, soft and commanding…held me captive and trembling before her…“Why do you struggle against your own desire?” Melisande lowered her head and kissed me. The shock of it went through me like a spear; I think I gasped…I swayed, dissolving under lips and tongue…my bones… molten fire, my flesh shaping itself to the form of her desire…(Kushiel’s Chosen)
Cruel love—a sacrificial, yielding love for one’s enemy: The Mahrkagir…reached out to touch my cheek and his hand was cold, so cold…I felt his touch like fire, setting me ablaze between my thighs…I shut my teeth on a moan…A strange rill of energy surged between us. I tasted fear and desire, his mad smile, and lost myself in his dilated eyes. His hand trailed down my throat, cupping one breast…pinching my erect nipple as hard as he could. A bolt of pain shot through me and I stifled a moan. “Ill thoughts, ill words, ill deeds.” He smiled tenderly at me, maintaining a pincerlike grip…“Your gods have chosen you for defilement. Is that not so?” I closed my eyes. “Yes.” (Kushiel’s Avatar)
Tender love—a healing and exalting love for one’s true beloved: That kiss, I cannot describe. It was like a poem, a prayer, a homecoming unlooked-for. It was like dungeon walls crumbling to reveal a glimpse of sky. It shook me to the very roots of my soul. All I could do was cling to him and gasp…And that is where time itself seemed to stretch and flow…and everything done by the Mahrkagir was undone, every cruelty, every iron thrust—undone, undone, undone, every kiss, every lick, every stroke, imprinting love upon my flesh, until I shuddered and knotted both hands in Joscelin’s hair, calling his name out loud, and my climax followed with the inevitability of the spring-fed waters tumbling over the rocks. (Kushiel’s Avatar)
Divine love—a selfless compassionate love greater than oneself: It burned in me like strong wine, like the first taste of joie I had known as a child, like Melisande’s touch…If I had not brought Imri out of the darkness of Daršanga , this brightness would never come to pass. Truly love was a wondrous force, now that I perceived the complexities of its workings…Joscelin…Every line, every plane of him was writ in an alphabet of flesh and bone, spelling out love. How had I never seen it? And Imriel…a tangled knot of fear and need, achingly vulnerable. It made my heart ache to look upon him. (Kushiel’s Avatar)
More than anything else, Carey’s epic tale is a poem dedicated to love; exalting love in all its facets, from selfless yielding and sacrifice to the harsh lusty desires of a cruel heart. From the last line of Chapter 1 in the first book to the last line of the last book—Jacqueline Carey demonstrates that her Kushiel’s Legacy is devoted to the power of love; how love can sustain us, how it shapes our lives, can move an empire, and empower us in our own singular heroic acts.
Love as thou wilt.
This review first appeared in Denise Fleischer's Gotta Write Network.
I also reviewed the exquisite yet disturbing motion picture "Pan's Labyrinth" here.
Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of novels, short stories and essays. She coaches writers and teaches writing at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. For more about Nina’s coaching & workshops visit www.ninamunteanu.me. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for more about her writing.