Jan. 16th, 2017

raven: (middleman - sleepy wendy)
So a few of you asked me to write up my thoughts on Kushiel's Dart, once I'd finished it! (It took a while. It had somehow escaped me that the print edition is NINE HUNDRED PAGES, wow.) My thoughts are - complicated. I liked it! I really did. But I probably won't read any more in the series.

Okay, so. Kushiel's Dart is set in the mythical land (actually Renaissance France) of Terre d'Ange. It's not high fantasy with magic, at least not really: it's a little like Megan Whalen Turner's Queen's Thief books, in that this is a world with a polytheistic pantheon that actually exists. Phedre, the narrator and main character, is an "anguisette" - it's all there in the etymology. She feels pain as pleasure. Kind of. It's complicated. Phedre's parents sell her off into indentured servitude when she's very young. She's raised in the Night Court, the complex arrangement of high-status brothels that form part an institutional component of Terre d'Ange. At the age of ten, her bond-price is bought by a dissembling aristocrat called Anafiel Delaunay, who already has another bond-slave, but chooses to take her when he realises what she is.

This story did not go where I thought it would.

Well, it did, but not how I thought. In broad sweeps, it's the story of how Phedre becomes a high-status sex worker (which, in her world, can be a form of religious service, and is so for her) who's also uniquely well-placed to gather intelligence from her patrons. Slowly, it becomes a story about shifting court and national alliances, and about revolution and war. It's about power, of course. I think if I'd read this at fifteen, I would have adored it. Firstly, so much consensual kink in a mainstream fantasy book! And not not-remarked-upon, but not secret; acknowledged as an ordinary thing for people to want. And secondly, it does the thing I still love, which is to take the power dynamics between individuals, and use them as a lens to look at power generally, political and personal. I don't think it does it particularly well, for reasons to come; I'm hampered here by not being fifteen and having read the Captive Prince trilogy relatively recently. But it does try to do it, and I like that.

And you know, I'd probably have read it and liked it fine. I like Phedre (not so much as a child, but I do like the trope of the adult narrator speaking fondly but despairingly of her younger self). But then it turns out IT'S A FOUND FAMILY STORY. It really is! I love to itty bitty bits how much Delaunay loves Phedre and how much she loves him, and how much they both love Alcuin. Delaunay chooses to give them his name and they both choose to carry it for themselves. They choose to be what they are to each other. Ah. My heart, my id.

And speaking of which, Anafiel Delaunay, poet, scholar, spy, Gaelic speaker (!! what! what even!), literally no one is surprised that he is my favourite character in this book. If I'd read it at fifteen, I'd have found it completely vital. Not only is Delaunay unremarkably and unapologetically queer (bisexual, even, be still my heart), it's his SPOILER, IT'S AN ENIGMATIC PAST )

So I liked it a lot! The reason I don't want to read any more of the books is partly because I'm just not cut out for 900-page doorstoppers, seriously, you could have told that story using half the trees, and partly because, well, the elephant in the room. I find Carey's worldbuilding really rich and interesting, for the most part. And I do like the quasi-real pantheon, and I even like the idea of a nation who are a little bit preternaturally beautiful because they're descended from a god. What I do not like is that of course it's white people are descended from a god. I like fantasy worldbuilding that draws heavily on real people and cultures. But I'm so not into petty criminal Roma people, and charming but "uncultured" Gaels; I don't really want to know what happens when Phedre meets brown people elsewhere, because I'm not thinking it will be good. And as a brown person, I'm used to fantasy that equates beauty with whiteness. It's another thing in this book, though; never, ever is it deconstructed that the people of Terre d'Ange may not be exactly their own account of themselves, perfect, beautiful, God's chosen people, and white.

So there we are. And it kind of sucks, because I liked a lot about this book, and I'd nominate Delaunay and Phedre for Yuletide in a heartbeat.

(Also, the Diana Gabaldon school of literary Gaelic lives on! Dear Ms Carey, "goirm" means blue. Sometimes it means green. Mostly blue. It's a real language, with living speakers. If you weren't such a white lady I would have given you the benefit of the doubt.)

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