Book Review: Kushiel’s Chosen by Jacqueline Carey

So, uh, sometimes I read romance books. Broadening my horizons, and all that. Plus, the first book in the series, Kushiel’s Dart, actually wasn’t terrible. And, y’know, when I stumbled across Kushiel’s Chosen in a dollar bin at a used bookstore … well, here we go.

I’ve been reading this book off and on since January. It’s taken me this long to read it for a bunch of reasons. For one, Kushiel’s Chosen comes in at just a little under a dense 700 pages– just one of the many ways Carey is writing a traditional doorstopper fantasy novel. That’s her fault. The other little hangup is a personal one, as that’s not exactly a cover I’d want anyone to see me reading in a coffee shop or an airport.

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Anyway, if you haven’t read any of Carey’s work before, or even if you haven’t read my earlier review of Kushiel’s Dart, here’s the low-down. Carey writes fantasy novels, complete with maps at the front of the book and funny names and intricate made up religions. However, the gimmick is, they’re sexy fantasy novels. The Kushiel series centers around Comtesse Phedre no Delaunay de Montreve, a courtesan-turned-spy-turned-noblewoman. Phedre is marked by the god/angel Kushiel, which gives her otherworldly, mysterious powers. Pretty standard fantasy setup, except that Phedre’s power is … super-masochism. She gets off on pain. Like, a lot. It’s even a pivotal plot point in the first book. So, like, Fifty Shades of Gandalf the Grey, I guess.

I will not apologize for that joke.

The funny thing is, while sex is definitely present in the book, and more so in the book’s marketing, it’s not entirely the focus. Sure, Phedre has kinky sexytimes during the course of the book, but it’s not even ridiculously explicit, either. I’d compare the sex scenes more to some cheesy soft-focus thing on Cinemax than hardcore porn. Everything’s draped in fancy purple prose; this is a book that uses the term “languissment” to refer to oral sex. Not to mention Carey treats sex and sexuality maturely, complete with consent and safewords for the getting-tied-up bits. It’s certainly a better take on the ‘sexy fantasy’ genre than a couple of other authors like, say, Fritz Leiber. (Seriously, that book was WTF all over).

Anyway, as the book goes on, the sexy bits become less and less of a thing, as pretty soon Phedre has better stuff to do than get herself tied to various pieces of bedroom furniture. See, while she’s a super-masochist courtesan, Phedre is also a spy, and soon she’s up to her fancy-bodiced neck in courtly intrigue. See, the Femme Fatale Villainess (who Phedre also kind of has the hots for, natch) from the previous book is still at large, so Phedre must unravel the mystery of how she escaped, and where she’s gotten off to. Things get a bit convoluted, as I found it kind of easy to get some of the various dukes and baronesses and what have you mixed up, especially since they’ve all got fancy fantasy names like Quincel de Morhban or Imriel de la Courcel or whatever. (The fact I read this book off and on over the course of a few months probably didn’t help much either).

Kushiel’s Chosen has pretty much the same structure as Kushiel’s Dart. In the first act, Phedre flonces around Not-Paris, trying to unravel a mystery while looking faaaaaabulous at the same time. Because, y’know, in these books, everyone who lives in Not-France is descended from a bunch of kinky angels, so they’re prettier and smarter and more capable than anybody else. And Phedre reminds you about it every few pages or so. They’re pretty much snooty elves without the pointy ears.

Phedre’s snootiness only becomes more apparent in the second act, where she travels to the canaled city of Not-Venice in pursuit of Femme Fatale Villainess. There’s more intriguing, more mystery, and finally the truth is revealed in a Terrible Betrayal. Phedre gets captured, spends a few chapters being filthy and miserable, and then she manages a Daring Escape. The last third of the book centers around Phedre (and the sexy and tormented pirate captain she falls in with) trying to make it back in time to deliver the news that will Save the Kingdom. It hits a lot of beats you’ve read before (especially if you read Kushiel’s Dart first).

More than being ‘fantasy with spankings,’ Kushiel’s Chosen is a fantasy adventure novel about women. All of the standard trappings are there: a dashing pirate, a gallant knight, various evil noblemen, the occasional prophecy, etc. It’s just that these are all viewed through the lens of a female character. Heck, there’s even a part in the middle where Phedre is literally a damsel locked up in a dungeon, waiting to be saved by the more swordy people in the book. It’s an interesting inversion on the typical fantasy adventure. And, while Phedre doesn’t stab anybody, she’s still an interesting, active character.

So yeah. Kushiel’s Chosen isn’t nearly as porny as that cover would have you believe. So, if you’re in the mood for something a little different (but not THAT different) in a fantasy novel, it’s worth checking out. And the funny thing is, Kushiel’s Chosen was even solid enough that I’m sligtly inclined to read the third book in the trilogy. Eventually. I think I’m gonna read something with more punching or explosions in the meanwhile.

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