raven: (middleman - sleepy wendy)
[personal profile] raven
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 star-crossed lifelong romance with Rolande de Courcel that drives the whole plot. (I guessed this before the reveal and have rarely been so happy to be proven right.) I love this. I love it so much. There is so much narrative hunger left in me for a story like this - a slightly silly, epic, high fantasy, a love story that's written to make you sigh with the romance of it all - that is also a queer story. It would have been so easy for Delaunay to have been the best friend of the crown prince; for them to have been blood brothers. Even this is ever-so-slightly elided; it's not quite clear if the oath in "oath-sworn" is an oath of friendship, or protection, or if it's REALLY QUITE GAY. But I've now read "You, and You Alone", the short story that sets out more of this backstory, and it's the THING IN ALLCAPS, OKAY. (Oh, my god. I'm not sure it's a very good short story, in fact I'm almost sure it isn't, but I read it anyway and sighed happily.)

And you know, I initially thought, to apply "queer" is an odd label in this context; it's not clear that the D'Angelines understand the idea of sexual identity based on whom you're attracted to. But then I recalled that Delaunay, too, chose the name; he changed his name to his mother's because his father wouldn't talk to him any more. If that's not a queer story, what the hell is. Moving on. Of course, if Delaunay is a queer, he's a dead queer. But I'm more tolerant of this trope when it seems to arise in pursuit of telling the stories queers don't get to appear in. The little moment where Ysandre tells Phedre that they may as well stop with the formality, because they're basically cousins - because of Delaunay's well-attested relationship with her father - made me really happy. It's such a nice worldbuilding note, and another jigsaw piece of queer family.

(And, aaah, the whole romance really does seem to have been written for me specifically. I don't think you could have written anything more tailor-made to tug at my innermost id than what happens to Delaunay after the death of Edmee. For everything else he is, he's a poet, and and everything he has ever written is burned, and this is mercy.)

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.)

on 2017-01-16 11:29 pm (UTC)
jamethiel: A photo of leatherbound book spines (BookSpine)
Posted by [personal profile] jamethiel
Yeah, the Rroma people--she used the word tzingano (or however they spell it), which is derived from Greek and means "untouchable"

:(

I adore the books and it's quite clear that Phedre herself is nationalistic etc., but Carey chose to write her that way. So.

on 2017-01-17 02:35 am (UTC)
st_aurafina: Rainbow DNA (Default)
Posted by [personal profile] st_aurafina
I'm grinning at all the good things you liked and nodding at all the places it tripped you up - this is exactly how I read it, too - wishing I had stumbled across it when I was younger so I could have had the same kind of intense and uncritical love that I had when I read the Valdemar books. (Which I can never have again, waaah, but they gave me so much joy and comfort at the time.)

But yeah, I think you're stopping in a good place. I liked the first book much, much more than the rest of them.

on 2017-01-17 03:39 am (UTC)
longwhitecoats: Arya Stark looking down, a constellation superimposed (Arya constellation)
Posted by [personal profile] longwhitecoats
YEAH, I think you're choosing a good place to stop -- SPOILER, she does indeed travel other places in later books, with about the results you would expect.

I'm so glad you liked Delaunay's backstory!!!!! That was always my favorite bit of the worldbuild tooooooo.

on 2017-01-17 11:33 am (UTC)
glinda: wee Amelia Pond from Dr Who, text 'chan eil mi Sassenach' which is gaelic for 'I'm not english' (gaelic Amy/not english)
Posted by [personal profile] glinda
People keep recommending these books to me! And I can see why based on the queer stuff. (ZOMG Queer, Gaelic speaking spy! :D :D :D Be still my beating heart.) I've never got round to them though, and I think I'm glad about that, and based on this review I will be avoiding them.

I do not need more 'charming but uncultured' Gaels in my literature, just no. (Between that and the Roma stuff, I can picture that book getting launched across the room at some point.) I think its actually worse when a book does really well in some ways and then fails completely in others. Because if it fails in all ways then I can just call it a bad book and be done with it, but if its really good in some areas I judge it more harshly because I feel like they should know better?

on 2017-01-17 10:22 pm (UTC)
glinda: a china cup filled with green tea and the word 'tì' (tea/tì)
Posted by [personal profile] glinda
and YET!!! Urgh, language teaching as an act of love, found families, so much my jam. So sad that it is otherwise full of fail. I wish to shake the author and demand: "wwwwwhhhhhhhhhyyyyyyyyy?????!!!!!"

on 2017-01-27 01:59 am (UTC)
fyrdrakken: (Beach - aqua wave)
Posted by [personal profile] fyrdrakken
I ran across the Kushiel books long enough ago that I blazed through the trilogy in a week and impatiently bought the follow-up trilogy as it came out. (Then I was reading other things for long enough that when I chose to check back in to see the latest books I was able to read the most recent trilogy in a single chunk.)

Carey also wrote a pair of books worthy of note because they're a fantasy epic very clearly looking at a Lord of the Rings sort of thing where there's a real question of which side is actually the forces of good and which the forces of evil. I read them only once, years ago, but as I recall it came across as being like Saruman had taken the Gandalf role and led the would-be good guys astray.

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