Kushiel's Dart
Jacqueline Carey
Tor, 2001

When I first picked up the book I noticed that Robert Jordan has a blurb quoted on the cover: "A very sophisticated fantasy, intricately plotted and a fascinating read." Jordan, like many fantasy authors, writes what amounts to a thinly disguised imitation of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. (Although I do enjoy the story.) Carey's fantasy world, on the other hand, makes no nods to Tolkien. There are no elves or dwarves. There is no easily identifyable Lord of Evil. The world of Kushiel's Dart is strongly reminiscent of Charlemagne's Frankish Empire. There is a new religion, a wonderful piece of heretical fantasy springing from the stories of Christianity's origins, and much of her fantasy world revolves around these new gods and goddesses.

Carey uses archaic names which may evoke places in the real world. Tiberium (for Rome's Tiber River) instead of Rome. Cruithne, the Picts' name for themselves. Alba, the Scots' name for their kingdom. Skaldi for people of northern Europe (skald was what the Norse called a bard). These names add a kind of exotic authenticity, but that's where the similarities end.

Her world's history passed differently: Rome never had a foothold in Britain, for example. A Pictish king drove out the Romans, which is why the Picts rule the island at the time of the story. A mysterious Master of the Straits magically prevents ships from crossing between Alba and the mainland, which makes both war and alliances nearly impossible. It is against this backdrop that Carey's story takes place.

What makes this story "very sophisticated" may well be its subject matter.

Phèdre was sold by her parents to a house of prostitution as a sacred sex slave1. She ends up with a wealthy owner, Anafiel Delauney. Delauney is a kind and scrupulous man, who educates her in the ways of courtly intrigue. Phèdre's peculiar desire for pain, combined with her training as a courtesan, allow her to assist Delauney in unraveling a deadly secret.

This is no bodice ripper, though. Phèdre's story is written as a personal account, with all the intimacy of a confessional. When I realized that Phèdre would be the victim of repeated sexual torture, I wondered if I could stomach the book (sado-masochism is most decidedly not my bag), but those passages are not too ornerous. However, the book is definitely not for younger readers. Carey does not mince words when it comes to describing Phèdre's peculiar vocation.

It did get me to thinking: why can I even bear to read this story? We're talking about at least a dozen scenes that lovingly describe the use of whips, chains, scourges, even knives, all on Phèdre's helpless body!

Many fans of fantasy are aware of John Norman's "Gor" stories, a series of rather low fantasy aimed at pubescent boys' prurience. Norman's stories are misogynistic in the extreme: On Gor women are slaves as a matter of course, and they like it that way. When there is sex, it typically is described as rape, because that's how it's done. They are always the property of men - whichever man is man enough to capture them from their last owner. In all, it is an extremely objectionable series of books.

Carey, on the other hand, takes care to point up the differences between her story and that of a misogynist's rape fantasy. Phèdre's desire for pain is inborn, not conditioned. In fact, the desire is the titular mark of Kushiel, a deified angel that's responsible for punishing sinners in hell. Her assignations with her torturers are mostly entered into voluntarily. When she suffers without giving consent, it is a different matter, and it is not suffered gladly - regardless of the pleasure that she receives in the bargain. Beyond that she is very much her own woman, proud of her training, her abilities, and her divine mark. She is also not the only strong female character.

This difference is essential to make the story palatable.

In all, in spite of the objectionable nature of sexual torture, I found myself enjoying the story. There are well plotted intrigues, high adventure, and great plot twists. Carey's characters are interesting, complex, and sympathetic. She knows how to write a fight scene like few authors I've encountered, from duels to pitched battles. She also takes pains to give this violence a human face, to point out the consequences to the survivors. In high fantasy that is a rare and beautiful quality. This is intelligent fantasy. I wish there were more like it.

1. To be more precise, she's not just a sacred sex slave, but an indentured servant who is expected to work off her indenture as a courtesan. Since this work is dedicated to a goddess, it is also sacred. But calling her a sacred sex slave is quicker, and covers all the salient points.