Sometimes, the timing just isn’t right for a particular book. Having chosen to start reading Kushiel’s Dart at an incredibly stressful time where work completely took over my life, it took me forever to get through this as I’d constantly find myself having zoned out thinking about a work problem and then struggling to find the thread again. I’m not sure whether that would have happened had I not been so stressed, but as it was Kushiel’s Dart didn’t hook me in the way that I had hoped. I’d put it down for days at a time without feeling the constant itch to pick it back up again and, having then taken so long to get through it, was left feeling pretty underwhelmed by it once it was done.
Born in the beautiful and prosperous land of Terre D’Ange which seems to have been inspired by the licentious French court of an English peasant’s dreams, Phedre belongs to a society which prizes beauty and in which different courts, dedicated to different aspects of physical love, comprise the higher echelons of society. Handed off to one of these courts as a child, Phedre is initially seen as something to be pitied and looked down upon due to an incredibly small physical flaw – a scarlet mote in her eye. However, Anafiel Delauney – the Lord Byron of Terre D’Ange – recognises the ‘flaw’ for what it really is; Phedre has been marked by Kushiel’s Dart and is thus an anguissette, someone who derives sexual pleasure from pain and who will make him a small fortune whilst bringing him all the secrets that her patrons divulge en flagrante. Taken under Delauney’s wing, Phedre and his other ward, Alcuin, are trained to be the best young sex spies that they could possibly be, with Terre D’Ange’s upper crust entering bidding wars to take the young people’s virginities and, in Phedre’s case, beat the living shit out of her to either get their rocks off or score points against her master.
Phedre enjoys her assignations, no matter how rage-filled and brutal they are, but soon her life as an expensive courtesan comes to a crashing halt as Delauney and Alcuin are murdered, and she is kidnapped by the Skaldic tribes that already threaten the throne of Terre D’Ange. Accompanied by her Casseline brotherhood bodyguard (think warrior monk) Phedre finds herself at the centre of a conspiracy to overthrow her queen, and must use all the pain-loving sex skills she learnt at her master’s feet to save the society she loves.
There’s no doubt that Jacqueline Carey writes well, if a little too much at times. The beginning of the book, where Phedre is learning her trade, earning money for her marque (tattoo) and taking a beating from whomever her patron needs to know about next, seemed to fill at least half the book while the kidnap and beyond sometimes felt a little more rushed. I felt like I was beaten over the head with the judgy Jocelyn (and the fact that he’d end up sleeping with the woman who so disgusted him came as absolutely no surprise), and I would have liked to have spent more time with Hyacinth in his part of town to have got an idea about what the less rich and beautiful of Terre D’Ange thought about their lots.
I have to be honest in that I also struggled with some of the copious sex scenes. I’m no prude (I read and loved Anais Nin, after all) but I must admit that quite a lot of Phedre’s assignations felt like a couple of steps past BDSM, tipping rather heavily into abuse on more than one occasion. This also wasn’t at all assuaged by the fact that Phedre had been groomed into sex work from an incredibly young age, making me feel that Anafiel Delauney wasn’t all he was cracked up to be. As a heroine, this did make Phedre’s way of driving events one of the more unusual I’ve read about, but I did find it highly amusing that lots of battle-hardened commanders were letting a sex worker come up with their plans.
I do have the rest of the trilogy on my shelves, having bought them as a deal alongside Kushiel’s Dart, but to me it says it all that I’m not exactly chomping at the bit to dive back in. I know that lots of people here adore this series, so I’m hoping that maybe if I read the next when I’m less stressed out, I’ll find a little more to love.