“Such a small thing on which to hinge a fate. Nothing more than a mote, a fleck, a mere speck of color. If it had been any other hue, perhaps it would have been a different story.”
Abandoned by her parents on the doorstep of the Night Court—home to the courtesans of Terre D’Ange—Phèdre is groomed for a life of service to Naamah in the City of Elua. But a red spot in her left eye marks her unfit to officially serve in the Night Court, so her marque is sold to the courtier Anafiel Delaunay, who raises her up to be a spy as well as a courtesan. Delaunay is also the only one to recognize what the red mote in her eye betokens; Phèdre is marked by Blessed Elua’s companion Kushiel, and she is an anguisette, doomed to take her pleasure in pain. Without knowing the depths in which she is swimming, Phèdre stumbles upon the key to a plot that threatens the Crown, and indeed Terre D’Ange itself.
Jacqueline Carey has built and elaborate world and religious system in Kushiel’s Dart, one that defies quick explanation. Indeed, the first hundred or so pages of the book have very little plot, and mostly contain exposition and world-building, which may be a hard sell for some readers to get past. The tone can also be somewhat baroque, as Phèdre is formally relating her adventures sometime after the fact. Carey’s world has very clear parallels to our Europe, but the story of Elua and his companions makes for a unique culture in which to set the story. Of those cast down from heaven to follow Elua, Naamah served by selling her body, and so in Terre D’Ange, courtesans are something akin to priestesses, practicing a holy art that is governed by custom and contract. Despite the information dumping to set this all up, I admire the way there is such a logical structure behind D’Angeline culture being kinkier, more sex-positive, and more accepting of open relationships than our own world—it is literally built into their religious system, and their way of life is logical extension of that. The sex scenes also tend to tie into the plot, as Phèdre seeks out information for Delaunay.
This isn’t our world, so it is difficult to label the characters in our terms, but most D’Angelines are what we might term bisexual. Once she enters the service of Naamah, Phèdre accepts assignations with both men and women, as does her foster brother Alcuin. This is not merely a matter of the Night Court and courtesans, however; Delaunay is also known to have loved both men and women, though some characters clearly have a preference one way or another. And of course, the great houses must make marriages to perpetual their lineage. Though both of Phèdre’s main romantic interests are men, she is captivated by her patron Melisande Shahrizai, a descendant of Kushiel’s house who understands and appreciates what it means to be an anguisette in a way that neither of the men do. But Melisande is also a wily and untrustworthy political player, to whom Phèdre cannot really give her heart.
Once the world is established, the narrative itself is a potent mix of sex and politics. King Ganelon de la Courcel is old, and his heir is his granddaughter Ysandre, who is as yet unmarried, though many have bid for her hand and failed. The succession was destabilized by the death of Ysandre’s father, Rolande, who was a killed in a famous battle driving back the Skaldi from the D’Angeline border. As Ganelon ails, the nobility are quietly skirmishing to upend the succession for their own gain. Anafiel Delaunay is somehow mixed up in the intrigue, and Phèdre and Alcuin spy at his bidding, but he does not reveal his full hand to them. This will lead Phèdre into adventures she never could have imagined when she pledged herself to Naamah’s service. Even as the succession is imperiled, Terre D’Ange is on the brink of war with Skaldia once more.
In many respects, this will be a series that is not for all readers. It is a romantic fantasy, but the sex scenes are explicit, and many of them are also violent; god-touched as she is, Phèdre is not so much kinky as we would recognize it as she is an utter masochist who takes pleasure in being subjected to violence that would be beyond the pale in reality. And while being a courtesan is a respected role in Terre D’Ange, this is not the case in other countries, and once Phèdre starts to travel, the situation gets a little murkier. I would recommend caution for anyone who has experienced sexual abuse or rape. But those who are up for it are in for a twisty, sex-positive political fantasy with many intricate layers.
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