Kushiel's Dart, Jacqueline Carey's debut novel, is an extraordinary book in many ways. An adult novel if ever there was one, it eschews the mythic aspirations of traditional high fantasy while seeking to reinvent what you might call "low" fantasy — in particular, the slave girl tropes popularized by Burroughs and "John Norman" — and presenting sexuality, and the influence sex has upon all areas of human interaction, in a bold and yet nonexploitive and compelling way. Back in the '80's, no less a writer than Watership Down's Richard Adams tried to do this very thing in what turned out to be little more than a boring trash novel called Maia. (Depending on how much I'm hating life in a given week, I may try to re-read and review that one for you.) Generally in fantasy, sex is either reduced to romantic ideals (fair princesses and noble knights, that kind of thing), cockteasing pseudoporn for preteen boys (chainmail-bikini stuff), or nonexistence (Tolkien). Kushiel's Dart is the real thing, a distaff examination of sex and power, unflinchingly forthright. On no account is it recommended for faint hearts or weak stomachs.
Of course, the novel's sexuality isn't all it has going for it. If all Carey had produced were a classy porn novel there'd be no reason to treat it as anything other than a novelty. Kushiel's Dart is in fact an impressively woven cryptohistorical tapestry, a sprawling novel of trust and betrayal, secrets and lies, with a plot that lures you in slowly by building layers of detail upon layers. Taking clear inspirational cues from the late Dorothy Dennett, with a nod or two in George R. R. Martin's direction, Carey has created one VLFN that stands above the bloated pack.
First in a trilogy, of course, Kushiel's Dart is set in an alternate quasi-medieval Europe, where the land of Terre d'Ange (conforming to France) was, according to legend, settled long ago by rebellious angels. Among these was Naamah, to whom generations of courtesans owe allegiance. Prostitution is not merely a noble calling in Terre d'Ange, it is a form of religious practice. For wealthy patrons to purchase a young acolyte's "virgin-price" is a sign of devotion that redounds to their social standing. Carey's development of her land's history, mythology, and social structure is richly and absorbingly detailed.
Phèdre is a girl in training who, upon her tenth birthday, enters the household of Anafiel Delauney, a prominent political intriguer who has purchased Phèdre's "marque." (Basically she's indentured to him until such a time as she can buy herself back.) Delauney notices the significance of a feature of Phèdre's that everyone else considers a flaw: a red spot in her eye is a mark called Kushiel's Dart, identifying her as an anguissette. In case you can't decipher that for yourself, she's destined to be a submissive S&M queen.
Ruthless in politics, Delauney is nevertheless kind to his young charges — Phèdre and a slightly older boy named Alcuin — but he makes no bones about his intentions. Grooming the two young courtesans in the ways of politics, and sending them for the best possible instruction in, you know, the other thing, Delauney rents Phèdre and Alcuin out to the most influential political figures in Terre d'Ange so as to learn their secrets. Phèdre learns who's in whose pocket, who's allied to whom, and passes this information dutifully along to her patron, all the while pushing her level of pain endurance beyond good sense. She really does like it rough. This may be the first fantasy novel with an avowed sexual masochist as the heroine.
Carey builds her story with the patience of an artist applying brushstroke after brushstroke with painstaking precision. When Phèdre finds herself at the center of a plot to take the throne of Terre d'Ange, everything begins hitting the fan just at the moment you've gotten comfortable. You realize all at once just how thoroughly Carey has absorbed you, and how much you share a stake with the plight of young Phèdre and the numerous other characters who are brought into (and on occasion shockingly dispatched out of) the story.
Comparisons to George R. R. Martin might be a bit premature for a debut novel, but there's no denying that Carey already has a flair for character development and intricate plotting and world-building that recalls Martin's. (Thankfully, Carey provides a detailed dramatis personae to help you navigate her enormous cast, and you will find yourself referencing it.) Kushiel's Dart is just the book to tide over readers waiting for the next installment of A Song of Ice and Fire. It isn't anything particularly large-scale that hooks you into Kushiel's Dart. It isn't even the kinky and sometimes astonishingly erotic sex scenes. It's all in the small details, the relationships, the nuances of people, places and politics. Carey prefers quiet, intimate moments (not just of the sexual kind) between individuals over massive, epic set-pieces. If you're looking for battle scenes, stay home. Phèdre wins your heart in spite of her disturbing profession, and so do her friends and allies. Even the novel's villains have an allure that goes beyond the routine; one particular arch-villainess is a powerfully irresistible character, unlike most such characters in modern fantasy who all too easily become plastic male-fantasy stereotypes. It's no surprise at all that a female author would do an immeasurably better job of creating truly sexy women than some run-of-the-mill sword-and-sorcery hack.
Kushiel's Dart is a quietly powerful tale of a world in upheaval seen through the eyes of a most unusual young woman, and it heralds the premiere of a writer who isn't simply going to buckle the bookshelves with more overweight VLFN's. No, her books look like they're going to matter.
Followed by Kushiel's Chosen.