Book review: Kushiel’s Dart (or: this is what I get for trying new things)
One of the reasons I started this blog was to have a place to put book reviews. Partly because I’d like to keep track of what I’m reading, and partly because book reviews lend themselves well to the blog format. It takes a lot to stay up to date on the latest hot movies and TV and music and such…but books? There’s just so many of those out there that there’s always room for new reviews. So here we go!
To tell the truth, I was a little hesitant to kick things off with Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Dart, but I figured I might as well fess up to it. But first, have a picture of some actual darts so when this link shows up on Facebook it doesn’t look as bad.
Anyway, Kushiel’s Dart is kind of a genre-mash of a book, in that it combines swords-and-horses fantasy with BDSM-tinged romance. Though to be honest, this is nothing new, because, well, sex sells. There’s all kinds of precedent for this in the fantasy genre. One need only look to classic SF/F authors like Phillip Jose Farmer, Anne McCaffrey or Piers Anthony to see (often problematic) sexual themes in their work. And that’s not mentioning the great-grandaddy (leather-daddy?) of all kinky fantasy lit, John Norman’s Gor novels. However, since the mid 90’s, sexy SF/F has been on the rise. Perhaps more importantly, these books have been marketed as sexy. For example, let’s judge a book by its cover and look at two editions of John Norman’s Tarnsman of Gor, first of the Gor series.
Sure, the first one is as exploitative as one would expect a Boris Vallejo cover to be, but at least there’s still swords and monsters, so it’s also about as metal as one would expect a Boris Vallejo cover to be. Whereas on the other one, it’s all about the sex. Which is fine, if that’s what you’re looking for, but it’s not exactly something you’d want to be seen reading in public. Which brings us to Kushiel’s Dart. I’d like to note that I don’t normally read sexy fantasy (or even ‘erotica’ in general), but a friend of mine had recommended the book, and I like to make it a point to try new things. Open mindedness and all that.
A debut novel, Kushiel’s Dart is the story of a girl named Phedre, who’s trained to be a courtesan in Terre D’Ange, a fantasy-land that’s vaguely reminiscent of 16th century France. One of the key points to the setting is the D’Angeline religion, which is centered around a half-divine guy named Elua, his angelic companion Naamah, and a bunch of other angels (of which the titular Kushiel is one). See, apparently, Elua & Co roamed all over the world a thousand years ago, and sexed up a bunch of people, which is how Terre D’Ange was founded, and why everyone in the country is so very, very pretty. Seriously, pretty much everyone Phedre runs into is a smokin’ hottie, one way or another. Elua got around, I guess. All of this is background is expounded in-depth in the first third of the novel or so, in the typical debut-novelist “look what I came up with, isn’t it neat?” style.
But anyway, back to Phedre. See, Phedre is marked with the titular “Kushiel’s Dart,” which is a little speck of red in her eye. And on top of that, this gives her the mutant power of getting off on pain. Kinky. This still strikes me as kind of a crappy power, as far as ‘chosen ones’ go. I can just imagine Kushiel sitting around with a bunch of other divine figures.
Thor: My champion can call down thunder and lightning, and is stronger than any man!
Athena: My champion’s guile is legendary, there is no puzzle she cannot solve!
Kushiel: My chosen one likes getting spanked.
Everyone else: …
Kushiel: A lot.
So Phedre’s courtesan-contract is bought when she’s just a little girl (oh yeah, by the way, D’Angelines practice child-indentured-servitude, which the book tries to play off as ‘it’s not so bad, really!’ but I find the idea rephrensible…but again, fiction). Thankfully, we don’t go into Piers Anthony territory, as Phedre winds up being trained not just to be a courtesan, but also to be a super-observant, multilingual, acrobatic spy. Once we get a bunch of exposition out of the way, it’s like a hundred or so pages in before things actually get sexy-like (which may be a good or a bad thing, depending on how you look at it). Phedre’s ‘talents’ as a masochsitic courtesan are put to use, as she is sent around to various kinky nobles (many of whom have surprisingly well appointed bondage-dungeons) in order to spy on them, listening to their pillow talk. It’s worth noting that these scenes get less and less explicit as they go on.
Things progress, and Phedre gets caught up in court politics, which I didn’t entirely follow, because I didn’t pay much attention to the multi-page ‘cast of characters’ bit at the beginning. Lots of names with apostrophes, y’know. Still, things go bad (as they do), and Phedre’s mentor is killed, and she winds up getting shipped off to the cold and savage northern lands of
Skyrim Skaldia, where the fierce barbarian tribes are being united by The Dragonborn some dude named Waldemar Selig. Of course, this book was published a good decade before Skyrim was even out, but both of them draw on the same fantasy tropes.
And that is the important part. Because once you get past the occasional spankings, Kushiel’s Dart is, for better or worse, a bog standard fantasy novel. There’s captures, and escapes, and swordfights, and diplomatic missions to faraway lands, and it all culminates in a big battle against the barbarian invaders. Seriously, apart from the occasional explicit-ish sex scene, you probably read this story back when you were in 8th grade. There’s even a map in the first few pages of the book, which I guess makes this ‘map fantasy.’
The flipside of this is, well, I’m a bit of a jaded reader, so while Carey’s novel falls into the standard fantasy tropes, it doesn’t exactly do anything new with them (apart from adding spankings, but I guess that might be the point?). However, there’s something to be said for those sexytime parts as well, in that they’re rather progressive. Carey addresses the whole sex-fantasy thing rather well, in that various gender combinations are all taken as ‘normal,’ not to mention that Phedre actually has a strictly-enforced safeword in her ‘assignations.’
All and all, these sexy parts are (mostly) integrated into the narrative, not to mention they’re dealt with in a very sex-positive way, which is arguably enough to put Carey ahead of a lot of other porn-y authors. Given that Jacqueline Carey has written nine novels in the same universe (and several others besides), I’d say she’s carved out a good niche for herself, so good for her.
Ultimately, Kushiel’s Dart wasn’t nearly as porny as I thought it would be, and yet it’s significantly pornier than my typical reading. It’s a genre-bender, and that’s what it takes to stand out from the crowd in today’s market.
Because, remember, sex sells.