Set in a fantasy world that mirrors our own, the story is recounted in the first person by Phédre no Delaunay. The worldbuilding is exquisite, and the principal action takes place in Phédre’s home kingdom of Terre d’Ange, or what would be France in our world. The mythology behind this land is that Jesus had a child, Elua, with Mother Earth, who went forth with a handful of angels who turned their back on God and mixed their blood with mortals, creating the D’Angeline race.
Terre d’Ange is bordered by the Skalidic lands (Germany) and the city-states of what remains of the empire of Tiberium (Rome), with Hellene (Greece) referred to more distantly, and Alba and Eire (The united Kingdom and Ireland) across the Straits. Although borrowing heavily from our own mythology, Kushiel’s Dart takes it and puts a beautiful and compelling twist on it, at once both comfortingly familiar and astonishingly fantastical.
Phédre, the unwanted get of a whore, is an anguissette – marked by a red mote in her eye, the sign of the long-passed angel, Kushiel, Phedre takes pleasure in her own pain, despite herself. Taken in by Anafiel Delaunay, and trained to be his spy, Phédre is swept up in the events of great kingdoms, her feet set on the path to change her own life and the lives of others.
Phédre suffers much throughout the course of the book, beyond the mere physical pain inflicted upon her by her clients as a Servant of Namaah (or very high-class and almost sacred prostitute, in service to the angel Namaah), and one cannot help but be compelled by her character. Her voice is strong and unique, and if the language is slightly ornate and flowery, it fits the formality and the beauty with which this world of Terre d’Ange is etched. Not once did I feel the language bogged the story down; instead it sets the stage for the use of euphemisms and less explicit language in the sexual descriptions.
As spy for her master Delaunay, Phédre uncovers treachery of the worst kind, and her knowledge catapults her into extreme straits and risks everything in her life she holds dear. In the company of Joscelin, the Cassiline warrior-priest sworn to protect her life, she must struggle to save two kingdoms and reclaim her own life and freedom. Pitched against her wily adversary, Melisande Shahrizai, whom she both hates and yet finds irresistibly compelling, Phédre must reach into the very depths of her strengths and commitment to win through.
I just said last week that Warbreaker was the first book to truly compel me in some time, but Kushiel’s Dart surpassed it. I completely neglected all my writing, blogging and critiquing responsibilities while I was reading this book, and justified it on the basis that the sooner it was read and finished, the sooner I got get back to work on the things I should be working on. My mind was only half-focussed while not reading this book, I was so desperate to know what happened next. I haven't bought the sequel yet, even though I badly want to - because, well, because I have writing commitments I have to meet!
The beginning of the book has been described by some as ‘slow’, and by comparison to the rest of the book, it probably is, but I nevertheless found it drew me on in a compelling fashion, hooked by the magnificent worldbuilding, Phédre’s voice, and the secrets hinted at, yet not revealed. I should mention, too, I am not usually a fan of first person POV, but this book obsessed me in a way no other first person ever has.
The book was recommended to me as erotic fantasy, but I don’t think I’d categorise it that way. According to Worlds Without End, erotic fantasy means a typical fantasy storyline ‘but there is far more graphic content, and sexual scenes are numerous and/or described in detail’. To that extent, I can’t deny it meets that definition, but really, the sexual content was important to the story, and there were plenty of opportunities for gratuitous sex scenes that were not taken. That said, this book is not for readers who are squeamish, judgemental or who prefer to avoid graphic sexual content.
For everyone else, go and buy this book. Now! Why are you still here?
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