George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire isn’t the only fantasy series to tackle the thrilling game of thrones: Jacqueline Carey was doing the same in the early 2000s with the Kushiel’s Legacy trilogy. And this one had plenty of sexposition long before it was a thing on the HBO series—thanks to courtesan/spy-turned-diplomat Phèdre nó Delaunay and her encounters with patrons, usurpers, and the divine. The Kushiel books readily accepted and depicted all sorts of sexualities—especially LGBTQ and BDSM—long before they were part of the mainstream conversation.
To celebrate the trade paperback release of Kushiel’s Dart, Theresa DeLucci and Natalie Zutter are rereading Kushiel’s Legacy. We’re breaking each book into two parts; turns out there’s a very natural delineation between Part 1 and Part 2 of each of Phèdre’s adventures (hint: it involves her getting imprisoned and/or enslaved). Each reread will include a brief summary, some plot highlights, and our commentary. We’re going to get spoilery—because it turns out there is a ton of foreshadowing for later books and trilogies—so feel free to do the same in the comments.
As Shemhazai said, all knowledge is worth having. And as he might have said… Reread as thou wilt!
Summary: Part 1 (Chapters 1-39)
The first half of Kushiel’s Dart spans about eighteen years and 350 pages—needless to say, a lot happens between Phèdre the unluckily-named child being sold into slavery to pay her parents’ debts, and Phèdre the accomplished courtesan and spy getting sold into slavery in northern Skaldia. Namely:
- Phèdre is declared first flawed and then unique, an anguissette thanks to the prick of Kushiel’s Dart in her eye
- Poet-turned-mysterious noble Anafiel Delaunay trains Phèdre and Alcuin to be his eyes and ears in the City of Elua’s bedchambers
- Several members of the royal family are accused of treason and are either executed or exiled
- Phèdre becomes the most in-demand courtesan in the city and becomes arrogant and careless because of it
- Delaunay and Alcuin get together (YAY) then are murdered (NOOOO) by realm hero Isidore d’Aiglemort’s men
- Phèdre slips up with Melisande Shahrizai (the sadist to Phèdre’s masochist) and unwittingly reveals the missing piece she needs to know to set her plan to steal the throne into motion
- Phèdre and her bodyguard Joscelin are sold into slavery in Skaldia
The game of thrones is real, and Phèdre nó Delaunay knows too much.
Welcome to the Night Court: Dirty Hogwarts! In a way that only epic fantasy novels can allow, there is a unique trait associated with all members of a particular house. By that accepted story logic, all adepts of Bryony house are good with money, while Eglantine’s adepts are trained artists. Camelia values perfection in all things, including racial purity (which we learn in later books), making them the Slytherins. Alyssum is definitely Hufflepuff: In a world of sexy courtesans, no one wants to spend a lot of time in the one house that rewards modesty.
Let Your Freak Flag Fly: Part 1 of Kushiel’s Dart is probably Phèdre’s most carefree time as an anguissette: Yes, she’s collecting tidbits of courtly intrigue for Delaunay, but to her it’s still a game, it’s not as if people’s lives or the fate of the throne are at stake. And if her patrons are moved to slap her, use red-hot pokers on her, dress her up like a veiled Akkhadian maiden, get dangerous with the flechette (thin little razors) play, or screw her right on the banquet table, all the better.
Phèdre’s assignations give a fascinating insight into kink from the perspective of a submissive: In the moment, she appears to be giving up control and to be humiliated for her patrons’ enjoyment. Yet, just as in real-life kink when the submissive holds the true power (to set limits, to use the safeword, etc.), Phèdre is always observing and drawing mental connections while her patrons are lost in satisfying their urges.
Midwinter Masque Madness: Phèdre gets to attend two Longest Nights in the first part of the novel. The first comes when she’s ten years old, and Prince Baudoin kisses her for luck—an irony, it would turn out, since Melisande contracts Phèdre as Baudoin’s goodbye gift before she frames him for treason.
In one of her smartest and most distracting moves, years later Melisande contracts Phèdre for another Longest Night, in which she parades Phèdre around in a sheer gown on a collar and leash. (Yep, these books just went for the really great, twisted stuff.) As a final touch, Melisande gifts Phèdre with a collar dripping with a single diamond—a bauble that, no matter how far Phèdre goes, keeps her always within Melisande’s reach. This is also the only time that Phèdre uses her signale, or safeword (“Hyacinthe”).
Pillow Talk: Delaunay has Phèdre and Alcuin pick up political intel in the bedroom to figure out who has plans against the throne, though neither knows that it’s because Delaunay has sworn an oath to protect young, unmarried Ysandre. Ironically, it’s in bed with Melisande after the Longest Night that Phèdre learns about Delaunay’s oath, as well as his love affair with Prince Rolande—and where Melisande gets Phèdre to admit damning information about Delaunay.
Divine Inspiration: The fact that the Night Court’s various houses debate why Naamah laid with kings and paupers for Elua nicely dovetails with each house’s different emphasis. It also foreshadows Phèdre’s journey toward understanding her own sexuality and her impact as a Servant of Naamah.
While we all know the importance of Kushiel’s Dart and the prophecy, what’s really key is meeting Kushiel’s other scions: the Kushelines, the Shahrizai, and specifically Melisande. It’s one thing for Phèdre to get off on pain; it’s another entirely for someone to push her to the very limits of physical and psychological agony, and to manipulate her abilities for treason.
Xenophobic Much? We don’t learn too much about Terre d’Ange’s neighbors in Part 1, aside from the fact that D’Angelines are super hot and more cultured than anyone else, at least according to D’Angelines. To be fair, Delaunay admits that his own reach to places like Caerdiccas Unitas is limited.
Editor’s Cut: Tor Books senior editor Claire Eddy says, “Of all the books I have worked on in my 30 years with the company, I can honestly say that Kushiel’s Dart was unique for many reasons, not the least of which is the fact that this book was written well before the Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon. It really was a different world then, and given that we were going to publish this title as mainstream fantasy, I had some fascinating conversations with [Jacqueline Carey], as the subject matter wasn’t anything that resembled an ordinary fantasy. We made some hard decisions about limits in the book and in the end I think we came up with choices that made for a truly unique book about an extraordinary heroine.”
I was one of the first in-house readers for Kushiel’s Dart. I was sitting in a launch meeting many, many years ago and Claire Eddy opened her spiel about this novel with “Storm Constantine says…” Instantly, I perked up. Like any good nerdy goth girl, I adored Storm Constantine’s own epic, transgressive, angelic Wraeththu trilogy, so an endorsement from her meant I just had to try Dart. That it also promised kinky sex and featured a tattooed courtesan-spy and wasn’t another traditional, male-centric series like the many Tor already published piqued my interest. Fair admission: I’m more of a horror/Weird/dark fantasy person than epic fantasy. I read Dart before A Game of Thrones because the sword on the latter’s front cover scared me away. Turns out, I do like fantasy, when the focus is more on characterization and twists of plot than detailed magical systems and the minutia of imaginary flora.
Dart definitely reminds me of A Game of Thrones, in that both Carey and Martin demonstrate a true love and deep knowledge of history. Carey is also well-studied in angels. Combining history with just a touch of the mystical creates a rich world that feels old and full, familiar but exhilarating. Also like ASoIaF, Kushiel’s Legacy doesn’t have much in the way of wizards and witches and spells, but when something magical happens, it has a huge impact on the plot. When Daenerys Targaryen’s dragons are born in A Game of Thrones, it changes not only her life, but life for the Dothraki people, and presents a real threat to the current king on the Iron Throne. Here, when the magical happens, like before the story begins and Elua and his Companions settle Terre D’Ange, it leads to, yes, beautiful people and legal brothels, but most importantly, an ingrained sense of national pride that all D’Angelines share, to varying degrees of fanaticism. The mystery of the Master of the Straits is another example of restrained magic later on in the series.
But what obviously drew me into this story from the very first page was Phèdre’s clear, clever voice. The first-person narrative is so intimate and inviting. I think because I read so much Weird and horror, I wasn’t used to really luxuriating in a character’s biography from birth to the real meat of the plot. While there isn’t a ton of straightforward plot in this first section of Kushiel’s Dart, all of the introduction was crucial to understanding the religion, the politics, and the courtly history and intrigues that shaped Phèdre into the reluctant heroine she hints at becoming.
Also, there’s lots of sex. And lots of anticipation for sex, especially on young Phèdre’s part, which I found so honest and fun for a young courtesan-in-training with a sharp mind. Phèdre’s impatience with her lessons mirrored my own in a way: “Come on, get to the S&M already!” But not to an unbearable degree, of course, because all of the hints Phèdre and Alcuin learned about Delaunay and his love for Rolande de la Courcel were tantalizing. The pageantry of the Midwinter Masque, the traditions of the Night Court, and the assignations themselves compelled me to keep reading.
Phèdre’s nature as an anguissette provided natural tension for her scenes with patrons, but none moreso than her encounters with Melisande. Melisande embodies the D’Angeline ideal of beauty and is as pure a scion as Kushiel could have. Because she, too, is touched by the same Companion as Phèdre, their extremely complicated relationship makes all kinds of boundaries muddied. Trust, desire, hate (and consent) are thrown into question. Melisande understands Phèdre more than Joscelin ever will. As a reader, it’s easy to scream, “No, don’t trust her!” The rational part of Phèdre’s brain warns the same, but until Melisande’s devastating game is revealed, Phèdre is helpless to resist.
When Phèdre and Joscelin are sold as slaves to Skaldia, it really does feel like all has been lost. And for me, while the death of Delaunay was a crushing blow, it’s almost expected in fiction for a master to make way for the student. What I didn’t expect and what hurt so much more, was the death of loyal, innocent Alcuin. As we leave behind Terre D’Ange, we know Phèdre’s girlhood is gone, too, and things are going to get a lot graver.
The way I proselytize about Kushiel’s Legacy, people assume that I’ve been reading the books since I was a preteen. That honor would actually go to Tamora Pierce’s Song of the Lioness quartet, but in many ways I see Kushiel’s Legacy as the natural evolution from there: It shares the compelling royal politics, a refreshing open-mindedness about sex, and a heroine who has to become more than she ever imagined she’d trained for. For the record, I started reading Kushiel’s Dart only about a year ago; I read the first six books in the span of about two months in early 2013.
Something that really strikes me about the first half of the book is the permanent consequences of characters’ decisions. Phèdre clearly mentions in the first few pages that she never again sees her parents after the age of four, yet I spent the entire trilogy assuming that somehow she would be reunited with them (and her sibling!), however briefly. When Delaunay and Alcuin were brutally murdered, I clung to the notion that Phèdre would somehow resurrect them. After all, when Part 2 delves into the mystery and magic of the Master of the Straits, I figured there must surely be a visit to the underworld planned as well. No dice.
The reread also really hammered home how love and cruelty go hand-in-hand. Not just in BDSM, obviously, but in situations like Phèdre giving up her crush on Delaunay because she knew that he and Alcuin were better for each other.
But something nagged at me from the very beginning: By declaring Phèdre flawed, was Cereus House going against Blessed Elua’s precept of “love as thou wilt”? Phèdre notes, “When Love cast me out, it was Cruelty who took pity upon me.” Not to mention the fact that Delaunay and Rolande aren’t allowed to be together because of Rolande’s obligations to the throne.
By Elua’s precept, isn’t love meant to be conditional? Or is love constrained in certain situations, the way it would be in non-Terre D’Ange, while any unusual expressions of it (i.e., homosexuality, kinks) are accepted?
Delaunay and Melisande share the weakness of wanting to flaunt their schemes—he by letting her know what he’s up to training Phèdre and Alcuin; she by sending messages to him through Phèdre, and ultimately giving Phèdre enough information with which to return from Skaldia. Though Delaunay isn’t into kink, I couldn’t help but read Melisande’s need for an audience as something out of the BDSM scene, where private play parties are often attended by observers watching another’s craft on display.
I believe part of Phèdre’s arrogance in Part 1 comes from constantly straining against her bonds. She acts out, always just reaching the limits; and as she begins to grow in reputation, she resents those boundaries even more. Cecilie Laveau-Perrin advises Phèdre that, once her marque is made, she’ll have the influence to choose who to invite into her bedchamber—and who not to. This unfortunately plays a big part in Part 2, as Phèdre is immediately used to warm various Skaldic lords’ beds. On my first read, my mind didn’t even go to the prospect of Phèdre having to have sex with someone she didn’t want to; like her, I was thinking only about the wonderfully dirty passages.
The only real “surprise” in rereading was Phèdre’s final scene with Melisande before she is sold into slavery: I was horrified to realize that Melisande used Phèdre’s abilities against her to force her to reveal more information about Quintilius Rousse’s men. It was one thing to trick a languid Phèdre into revealing an offhand detail about Delaunay’s grand scheme; it’s another entirely to (as the text implies) interrogate Phèdre through sexual torture, knowing full well that Phèdre’s body is responding even as her mind shuts down in horror. I got used to thinking of the worst violation of Phèdre’s consent happening in Kushiel’s Avatar, but now that I’ve realized this, it poisons the alluring nature of Phèdre and Melisande’s dynamic.
The end of Part 1 kicks off an interesting pattern in Kushiel’s Legacy, which is that every book’s middle has Phèdre being either sold into slavery or imprisoned—in Avatar, she goes willingly! It’s an odd motif to see repeated, and something I’ll delve into more in the later books.
Theresa DeLucci is a regular contributor to Tor.com, covering book reviews, gaming news and TV, including Game of Thrones. She’s also covered entertainment news on Boing Boing. A student of the 2008 Clarion West Writers’ workshop, her short fiction has appeared in ChiZine. Follow her on Twitter @tdelucci.
Natalie Zutter really wishes she had thrown a Midwinter Masque this year, and is embarrassed to admit she has totally used “anguissette” in a username somewhere on the Internet. You can read more of her work on Twitter and elsewhere.