Friday, September 07, 2001

Review: "Kushiel's Dart" by Jacqueline Carey

In the world of fantasy, truly daring books have a tendency to take a backseat to the safer Tolkien knock-offs. It's rare to see a risky novel and even rarer to see one from a new author. With "Kushiel's Dart" (Tor), Jacqueline Carey breaks the mold and takes some chances. In doing so, she's produced one of the best first novels to come out of the genre in quite a while.

Phedre is born to a courtesan of the Night Court who was married without the court's approval. To make matters more difficult, she's also been labeled with an ill-luck name, one that will prove prophetic.

While she bears the beauty of the D'Angeline courtesans, she is shunned by the Night Court for what they perceive to be an imperfection - a tiny mote of red in her left eye. Anafiel Delaunay recognizes the "deformity" as Kushiel's Dart - the sign of one marked by the gods, an anguissette.

Delaunay immediately purchases Phedre's marque from the Night Court and begins to train her in a new talent, the art of espionage. She soon finds herself enmeshed in a web of intrigue as she reports the secrets of her patrons, shared in moments of passion, to Delaunay.

Soon, things are looking bright for Phedre, but not for long. Just as the marquist is about to complete the design that will set her free, she learns that Delaunay's house has been attacked and everyone murdered.

When she tries to relay a final message to his allies, Phedre is captured. Branded a murderer in her homeland and sold into slavery to a tribe of the brutal and warlike Skaldi, she learns of a plot to usurp the throne of the D'Angelines. It's up to her, a disgraced Cassiline warrior priest and a disinherited Tsingani prophet to save the D'Angelines and clear her name.

The risky and risque themes aside, "Kushiel's Dart" is an exceptionally good story. Carey deftly weaves a tale of espionage that has a little bit of everything - fantasy, mystery, adventure and romance. The language of the book is beautiful, and the names of places and characters seem to fit perfectly.

The characters themselves are complex and easy for the reader to like. Even though Phedre's thought process seems unfathomable at times, I still found it hard not to identify with her and root for her. Likewise, the warrior priest Joscelin's struggle to choose between his vows and his devotion to Phedre is something that most readers will connect with in one way or another.

There's also a historical aspect to the novel. All of the races that populate Carey's Rennaissance-like world are based on cultures from our own. The approach makes for a more believable mix of people and a more realistic setting. In many ways, her world-building skills remind me of Guy Gavriel Kay, one of the giants of historical fantasy.

Of necessity, "Kushiel's Dart" is R-rated; Phedre is, after all, a courtesan - and one with a strange gift as well. Carey does include a few graphic scenes, but only those that are telling to the story. She walks a fine line, but manages not to cross it. If there's no nugget of knowledge to be gained from the scene, Carey usually passes on it. Still, some readers may be offended.

If you approach it with an open mind, though, you'll find a great debut from a very promising writer.

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