We’re continuing Kushiel’s Reread with Kushiel’s Chosen, the perennial middle book: It has to recapture the magic of the original, while upping its stakes without getting ludicrous. In many ways, Chosen tracks Phèdre nó Delaunay’s development into a better Servant of Naamah, spy, and peer of the realm. In other ways, the book is the weakest of the trilogy by dint of being a bridge between the naïve girl of Kushiel’s Dart and the worldly woman of Kushiel’s Avatar. But first, let’s find out what happens when Phèdre rededicates herself to serving and spying!
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 1-41)
Chosen basically picks up right where Dart left off, with Melisande delivering Phèdre her sangoire cloak and the challenge to find her. As usual with a Kushiel book, Phèdre takes it upon herself to pursue every lead in Terre d’Ange before sailing to La Serenissima, where she is yet again captured by Melisande:
- Phèdre returns to the City of Elua and debuts again as a Servant of Naamah, now able to choose her patrons
- Her first is Severio Stregazza, quarter-D’Angeline prince from La Serenissima who pays 20,000 ducats for the honor
- Joscelin, troubled by Phèdre’s rededication to Naamah’s service, spends time with the Yeshuites, who want to leave Terre d’Ange to set up a new community beyond Skaldia
- Phèdre also studies with the Yeshuite Rebbe, trying to find the key to save Hyacinthe from his apprenticeship with the Master of the Straits
- Phèdre’s chevaliers question D’Angeline guards to find out where the missing guardsmen from Troyes-le-Mont (the fortress from which Melisande escaped) have disappeared to
- Melisande’s cousins are found guilty for aiding in her escape from Troyes-le-Mont: Persia for swapping places with Melisande, and Marmion for inadvertently killing Persia when he found out
- Phèdre goes to La Serenissima and immerses herself in the politics of the Little Court to discover Melisande’s whereabouts
- More than once, Phèdre and Joscelin each threaten to end things: They give in for one night before he decides to leave for the Yeshuites, who want him to be their Mashiach
- It turns out that Melisande was hiding in plain sight: As Prince Benedicte’s D’Angeline bride, and the mother of his newborn heir
- Remy and Fortun are murdered (NOOO), and Phèdre is imprisoned on the island fortress of La Dolorosa
Except this time, there’s no Cassiline as a survival buddy. Phèdre is well and truly alone.
Divine Inspiration: The beginning of Chosen sees Phèdre and Joscelin at constant odds with one another, by virtue of being scions of gods from opposite ends of the spectrum: She can’t fight the desire of returning to Naamah’s service, while he must mimic Cassiel and stand at the crossroads over and over again. But it’s Phèdre’s chevalier Ti-Phillippe who sagely points out, “Stupid to speak of blame when the wills of immortals are involved.” Too bad they don’t realize that at this point.
A new major divinity in Chosen is Asherat-of-the Sea, a sea goddess and the patron saint of La Serenissima who also shares a symbolic marriage with the elected Doge of the city-state. A mother grieving the loss of her son, her sorrow is represented by the island of La Dolorosa, and her priestesses—like Melisande—wear mourning veils.
Strange Bedfellows: Phèdre can’t deny that she misses her rougher, more imaginative patrons; and with Joscelin having rejected her, she’s simply lonely. As before, pillow talk yields more intrigue than expected, and she even makes a friend or two along the way:
- Severio Stregazza—Phèdre’s first patron is the part-D’Angeline Serenissiman prince who possesses a key political position and a roleplay fetish
- Diànne and Apollonaire—a brother and sister who share Phèdre, and who turn out to know more about court happenings than she does
- Nicola L’Envers y Aragon—a fan favorite, with purple eyes and “the lazy smile of a stalking leopardess,” Queen Ysandre’s cousin has a love of secrets and silk rope; she also gives Phèdre the password to House L’Envers, “burning river”
- Raphael Murain—an adept of Gentian House who helps Phèdre with her nightmares through healing intimacy
Xenophobic Much? Did you know that D’Angelines are lovelier, more gifted, and just better than everyone else? Phèdre certainly can’t keep from observing it over and over, with her takeaway being “it must be so difficult for everyone else to envy us.” It’s a rather naïve view, somewhat surprising after her many travels in Dart. Not to keep the Hogwarts comparison going, but it turns out that a lot of D’Angelines would be sorted into Slytherin for hating—openly or not—half-blooded D’Angelines like Severio and the prospect of Ysandre’s half-Cruithne heirs.
Midwinter Masque Madness: Getting sewn into the Mara costume! Re-entering the service of Naamah, this is Phèdre’s big debut. Not to mention, it’s the occasion that brings us our first (of many, thankfully) encounters with couterier Favrielle nó Eglantine and her disdain/awe of Phèdre.
Editor’s Cuts: Editor Claire Eddy says: “Kushiel’s Chosen was an interesting project because while I received Kushiel’s Dart as a mostly finished manuscript, I got to work with Jacqueline on the development of the second book. Again, we had to negotiate the terrain of the worldview because we were looking to balance the integrity of the story with concepts that might shock the general fantasy reader. If we did this book now, I think that the conversations might have been a bit different, but the overall story arc would have remained the same.”
My anticipation for the sequel to Kushiel’s Dart was something only an adept of Valerian might understand—my expectations sky-high after one of my favorite fantasy novels ever. That first book also has a nostalgic place in my heart, being the first novel I got to work on in my first post-college job. To see that stack of papers turn into a real book and then a bestseller remains one of the high points of my career in publishing. How could any sequel measure up?
So, yeah, I really wanted to return to Terre d’Ange and fall in love with Phèdre all over again, but that kind of magic is almost impossibly hard to recapture. A cliffhanger is by its nature, often more exciting than its resolution. When Phèdre regained her sangoire cloak at the end of Dart, it was a promise that more sexy adventure was ahead. Instead, what we get early on in Kushiel’s Chosen is a lot of interrogations, a lot of thinking about interrogations, and a bunch of religion and foreign politics. Harsh, I know, but I couldn’t help but feel let down by the slow burn of this novel. Especially when weighed against the first book and the equally wonderful third novel in this series.
I think the biggest issue I had with Chosen was Phèdre’s voice. No longer a fresh-faced ingenue, she’s now the foremost courtesan in the world. She was easier to relate to as an outcast. The D’Angeline pride that drove Phèdre to try so hard to save her country from a Skaldi invasion in Dart sounds way more haughty when she travels abroad on a reconnaissance mission.
For example, this will sound really, really silly, but as an Italian-American who’s already used to not seeing many representations of positive Italian beauty in pop culture (Monica Bellucci is not really representative of the average Italian woman, and neither are the plastic Mob Wives), the bluntness with which Phèdre denigrates these Italian analogs for being lacking in grace, dreadful dressers, and uneducated in many things were upsetting. Everyone is only beautiful in their own nation’s fashion, which again and again is pointed out as being inferior. And yes, she comes from a culture where women are allowed to read and things are a bit more advanced—D’Angelines had freaking angels to help them along and they surpassed most of what the Tiberian empire had in its heyday. It’s privilege, plain and simple. Pretty privilege, too. All those plain-Jane Serennissiman women ooh and ahh over Phèdre with jealous awe wherever she goes, and it just grates a bit.
No wonder Severio Stregazza has such a big chip on his shoulder.
It’s hard to get lost in a fantasy that just keeps reminding you so explicitly just how special the protagonist is. Yet, I don’t think of Carey’s heroine as a Mary Sue because she just sort of is what she is, and unapologetic about it. She is the only anguissette born in three generations. She is Delauney’s pupil and a bona fide hero. She’s earned her elevated status. And Phèdre does admit that her stymied investigation and relationship with Joscelin leaves her secretly unhappy, despite her fame and fortune. It’s only when so many characters stammer and swoon over her—and her displays of inherent D’Angeline elitism—that I roll my eyes.
The only person not totally enamored of Phèdre (aside from Barquiel L’Envers) is Joscelin. Instead of liking him even more for this, I found his growing fascination with the Yeshuites to be a regression back to his old wet-blanket days. While I empathize with his unhappiness at seeing Phèdre rededicate herself to Namaah’s service and the courtly danger of Melisande’s schemes, it was quite a bummer to see this great couple spend a huge chunk of the book fighting with each other and then, ultimately, not sharing a scene together for a long time.
The second issue I had is that the stakes are somewhat lower in Kushiel’s Chosen, especially in the first half. Part 1 is largely about following leads on Melisande’s escape and pretending to entertain the idea of a very unbelievable marriage proposal by a Serenissiman noble. Severio is at least interesting as a character and it was cool to see his outsider perspective on the frankly racist D’Angelines who judge him for being only a half-blood.
And yet his steamy sex scene with Phèdre revealed how worthy of respect D’Angelines can be because of how positive they are towards sex. Severio may be uncouth, but his relief at finding someone who doesn’t think his fetish for darker pleasures is so freakish was very moving. So, yes, sometimes the jealous awe mere mortals have towards Phèdre is warranted.
The other thing that most struck me about rereading Chosen was the motif of veils in the first half: Phèdre wears a veil to the Midwinter Masque (oh, how I’d love more stories from the POV of prior anguissettes like Mara!) and of course there is the recurring theme of Phèdre’s veiled intentions as she goes about her sleuthing.
But, overall, Kushiel’s Chosen doesn’t hit its stride until Melisande finally lifts her own veil.
I actually really appreciated Phèdre’s return to spying in Chosen more on the reread. Having just finished rereading Dart, I had a greater appreciation for Phèdre’s desire to rectify some of the damage from Delaunay’s long game. Even though his death wasn’t her fault because she didn’t know all of the stakes, now she is the only person who has all of the puzzle pieces (so far), plus she has the added benefit and access of her newly adopted peerage. With Delaunay’s bust watching over her, she can’t resist diving into courtly intrigues.
I also had greater appreciation for Phèdre’s disjointed identity of noble and servant (of Naamah): It’s one thing to be reckoned the court’s plaything, but now she has an actual say in certain matters in the City. It’s telling that even in Terre d’Ange, which reveres all members of the Night Court, people still whisper to each other when she walks the halls of the palace—because who really knows why she’s there?
Of course, having all of these titles under her belt—not to mention the undying devotion of the Unforgiven—does have the effect of making Phèdre seem like a Mary Sue in parts. It doesn’t help that few women can match her, which is why I was very glad to meet both Favrielle and Nicola. Two favorites in the same book! And let’s face it, Phèdre has always been a bit arrogant; with her literally god-granted gifts, it makes sense that she would begin to believe her own hype. The reminder that she grew up believing she was “a whore’s unwanted get” also soothes some of the Mary Sue-ness. It’s not as if she entirely prospers from it, either: Someone that high on a pedestal is bound to be lonely, and Phèdre doesn’t deny that. Yet, that sense that Joscelin has abandoned her is what makes her trust Nicola and her chevaliers far more. It’s important that Phèdre know she can rely on more than just her Perfect (not so much in this part) Companion.
Also, can we talk about all of the cruel foreshadowing in this book? Fortun telling Phèdre he has a good-luck name—why would you court fate by saying that? Fortun joking that Melisande is changing Imriel’s swaddling clothes—you are the smartest person in this book why did you have to die. Basically, Fortun is introduced so we can sob when he gets taken down by Benedicte’s guards.
The biggest motif in Part 1 was the notion of murderers, and those who deign (or dare) to touch them. It starts when Favrielle dresses Phèdre as Mara, the daughter (and handmaiden of hell) of Naamah after she lay with a murderer. (I couldn’t help but flash forward to Phèdre and Kazan Atrabiades in Part 2.) Ysandre muses on how things might have been better if her father had married Edmee de Rocaille, even though that would have meant Ysandre—a murderess’ daughter—was never born. And of course, there’s the weird little family of Benedicte, Melisande (who we should have suspected, after all she loves the older men), and poor baby Imriel. None of these cases are black-and-white; in each instance, because it’s Terre d’Ange, there is at least a little bit of love.
Next week is Part 2 of Kushiel’s Chosen, in which all of this blood gets washed away in a nightmare-inducing way!
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