We have been recently cooking up a new series we are calling The Book Rookie, which you can find here. The idea behind it is that we pair a reader who is fairly new to the SFF genres, and one that is more well-read, and read breakout genre hits and have a discussion. I am one of the self-proclaimed “well-read” readers in the segment, but in the process of talking about the fantasy landscape as a whole, I realized I still have a few fantasy top hits I haven’t gotten around to reading. One of these genre favorites is Kushiel’s Dart by Jacqueline Carey. So I thought to myself, “perfect, I will pick it up, read a guaranteed great book based on public sentiment, expand my list of recommendable female authors, and have an easy review.” That is not how things worked out.
I want to put my closing thoughts upfront this time so you can keep them in mind as you read the rest of the review. I think Kushiel’s Dart is a well-written book with excellent political intrigue and great worldbuilding. However, I think its extremely graphic sexual nature is inseparable from the story – and if you do not find the idea of masochistic play appealing, you are not going to enjoy it. I ended up quitting the book at about 50%, or about 500 pages in.
Our story follows Phèdre nó Delaunay, a woman sold into indentured servitude as a child. She is purchased by Anafiel Delaunay, a nobleman with a Count of Monte Cristo-esque quest, and she is plunged face-first into a world of politics and court intrigue. The unique selling point of Phèdre that makes her different than all the other indentured sex slaves in the land, is she is pricked by Kushiel’s Dart (a small mote in her eye), chosen to forever experience pain and pleasure as one. Essentially, Phèdre has some nerve endings crossed by magic, and her pain and pleasure receptors are the same thing.
The initial part of the book follows Phèdre’s training in the courtly arts and the talents of the bedchamber, as she learns to be a courtesan and a spy. In this portion of the story, it is almost like a magical sex school and I was very much feeling the narrative. Phèdre is an interesting and likable character, and she is surrounded by an equally well fleshed-out cast. The names are a bit difficult to remember at first, but Carey put a lot of work into making every character have their own identity, which quickly helps the reader adapt to the naming conventions. I was very pleased, due to the book’s huge page count, to find that character growth starts early and the reader gets a real sense that Phèdre is being shaped by the world around her. She also feels like she has strong agency and a lot of ability to shape events around her with meaningful decisions and actions. Overall, Phèdre is a very solid character.
Phèdre’s set up is very clearly a convoluted set up to write BDSM and make it logically appropriate for the story and world. But, I will give Carey this, she sells it really well. The prose and poetic nature of Kushiel’s Dart is phenomenal – arguably some of the best prose I have read. Everything is poetic and descriptive and lush with details. To my delight, this made the worldbuilding and politics extremely immersive and expansive. To my displeasure, this made the sex and the torture (often the same thing) unpleasantly graphic. My biggest problem with the book was that over time, the focus starts to shift away from the world and politics, and to rapid-fire sex and torture scenes. In the first quarter of the book, the sex and violence make up what felt like 10-20% of the pages. By the end of the second quarter, the focus felt like it had shifted to be about 80% of page content going to BDSM. It was at this point that I found I couldn’t get away with skimming over Phèdre getting beaten and burned (and liking it) and still follow the plot, so I decided to call it.
If the idea of well written BDSM appeals to you, Kushiel’s Dart may be your next favorite book. Its prose is incredible, and the politics is up there with some of the best court intrigue fantasy I have read. However, if BDSM does not appeal to you, or if you don’t have any feelings about BDSM, then this book is probably not for you. Jacqueline Carey is a wonderful writer but at the end of the day, it doesn’t change the fact that this book is mostly sex and violence. It was an interesting reading experience, but Kushiel’s Dart was not for me.
Rating: Kushiel’s Dart – DNF/10