Kushiel’s Reread

Blood is Thicker Than Water: Kushiel’s Chosen, Part 2

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Just as the first half of Kushiel’s Dart saw Delaunay and Alcuin murdered, and Phèdre and Joscelin sold into slavery, Kushiel’s Chosen Part 1 ends on a similar cliffhanger: Melisande Shahrizai, upon revealing herself in La Serenissima, has Phèdre’s chevaliers slain and imprisons the meddling anguissette on the island fortress of La Dolorosa. Clearly this murder plus slavery/imprisonment/exile combination is Melisande’s favorite move, though you’d think she would have learned from the events of Dart that she should not try to make her pet-turned-peer yield.

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 2 (Chapters 42-83)

There’s a point in Part 2 where it looks as if Phèdre will return to La Serenissima and resume her intrigues. But it wouldn’t be a Kushiel book if she didn’t go on a ton of side voyages:

  • Phèdre gets picked up by Illyrian pirate Kazan Atrabiades and his crew
  • She tries to send word to Marsilikos, but the Serenissimans intercept the message and try to kill her
  • They escape the Serenissimans, only to wash ashore on the Temenos
  • Kazan undergoes the thetalos, as does Phèdre, who follows him inside and confronts her own blood-guilt
  • They decide to return to La Serenissima (Phèdre hiding in a chest of jewels), an almost-certainly fatal endeavor
  • Phèdre pretends to be the goddess Asherat-of-the-Sea in order to infiltrate the Doge’s investiture ceremony
  • Ysandre’s Cassiline guard, David de Rocaille, tries to kill his Queen, but Joscelin kills him instead
  • Melisande reveals that she has sent baby Imriel (third in line for the throne) away to a mysterious location
  • She takes sanctuary in the Temple of Asherat, where no one can harm her
  • Phèdre, Joscelin, Ysandre, and the rest of the D’Angelines ride back to Terre d’Ange to prevent Percy de Somerville from taking over the City of Elua

Terre d’Ange is saved! For the next ten years, at least.

Kushiel's Reread Tor.com Kushiel's Chosen Part 2Divine Inspiration: Kazan lives under a shadow of guilt—cursed by his own mother, no less—for accidentally killing his brother in a battle. With the kríavbhog stalking him, he’s forbidden to go home until his soul is ritualistically cleansed in the thetalos.

A major motif in Kushiel’s Chosen is the human corruption of deities, with the biggest transgression being Marie-Celeste Stregazza’s plot to suborn the oracle at the Temple of Asherat. Later, Phèdre must briefly masquerade as Asherat to splinter the Stregazzas’ Dogal investiture. It’s a keen reminder that there really is distance between the Companions and their scions. Down in Terre d’Ange (and the surrounding lands), it’s pretty easy for mortals to reverse the dynamics and use the gods to their own devices. (Also, Phèdre has a major soft spot for religious authority figures; she nearly swoons over Naamah’s priestess in Part 1, and Pasiphae in Part 2.)

Stranger in a Strange Land: With Kazan and his crew, Phèdre travels all over Illyria and Hellas—Epidauro, the Temenos, and more. There’s the isle of Dobrek, which offers a welcome break from the seafaring life, but whose people are simultaneously wary and fascinated by Phèdre’s presence. In Kriti, the Archon’s first appearance is locked in a well-oiled wrestling match with his adviser and lover. It’s not enough to make a servant of Naamah blush, but imagine if rulers in Terre D’Ange received audiences “mother-naked.”

Luck Be a Lady: Considering how many coincidences and concurrent narrative threads had to intertwine at just the right points to direct Phèdre’s life in Dart, one could argue that luck is woven in there. But it’s not until Chosen that it becomes a major theme—from something so random as the Doge’s collar of pearls identifying the captive Phèdre to Joscelin and Ti-Phillippe, to the Illyrian sailors believing that Phèdre is a Vila, ill-luck to passengers.

Part 2 is also where Phèdre travels to Hellas, from which her name comes. In Hellene lore, Phaedra kills herself out of guilt; her namesake enters the thetalos and is confronted with the blood-price of all who have helped her. It’s also in the cave that Phèdre realizes she can no longer claim to have an ill-luck name as if it’s something that has merely happened to her; she has to acknowledge what she asks of others.

Love is All You Need: Like luck, love is another theme that starts to really manifest here, halfway through the series. Whereas Phèdre and Joscelin fell in love while escaping Skaldia in Dart, it’s his love for her that makes him besiege La Dolorosa. And yet, he’s blind to the Yeshuite girl Hanna, who would have given him her heart. As the Rebbe also warns Joscelin, “You Children of Elua are too quick to forget how the love you invoke may cut like a blade.”

Of course, such love ties in to cruelty, such as Tito the guard sacrificing his life to save Phèdre, or Phèdre only realizing that Melisande truly cares for her after she slams her head into the wall. Phèdre later has her own realization about Elua’s nature:

They are fools, who reckon Elua a soft god, fit only for the worship of starry-eyed lovers. Let the warriors clamor after gods of blood and thunder; love is hard, harder than steel and thrice as cruel. It is as inexorable as the tide, and life and death alike follow in its wake.

Let’s remember this as we move into the disturbing utter darkness of Kushiel’s Avatar.

Happily Ever After: Phèdre finally recognizes Joscelin as her consort! This happens at Ysandre’s belated fete for the realm’s heroes, where the Comtesse de Montrève wears a beautiful green-and-bronze dress reflecting her travels across Illyria. (Joscelin becoming Phèdre’s consort also marks a change in his attitude toward love, as he seems to have made some peace with the notion of her taking on other lovers, like Nicola.) Finally, Ysandre gifts Phèdre with the Companion’s Star, which allows her to address her Queen as a peer, and which grants her one boon—which we know she’ll use in Avatar.

 

Theresa’s Commentary

Imprisonment, kidnapping, and a ticking clock propel the second half of Kushiel’s Chosen forward at a fast clip. Kind of. A lot of things happen in contrast to the first half of the book, which I admit I was harsh on. And yet, I still found myself frustrated by the long digressions on the road to saving Ysandre once again from the jaws of treason. But so was Phèdre!

La Dolorosa was a definite dark point in Phèdre’s life and one could easily see how many had gone mad listening to that wind; even a strong mind like Phèdre’s was vulnerable. And it gave one time to really marvel at the deviousness of Melisande’s plans. At this point, I was still reeling from her big reveal. Of course, I doubt any reader would believe that Phèdre would be trapped there for long, so Melisande’s tempting offer of a gilded, personal prison was the more dangerous threat. It’s still hard to reconcile Phèdre’s weakness for a woman who sexually assaulted her, sold her into slavery, and nearly destroyed her beloved nation, but if Chosen drives home any point, love is the most dangerous facet of dangerous gods. And the gods are very, very real.

The power of the gods was glaringly clear when Asherat-of-the-Sea saved Phèdre from a watery grave the moment she pledged to clean the goddess’ house of Melisande’s corruption. Until this part of Chosen, I never really quite felt the gods of this world as really… real. Literal. Listening. Guiding. Phèdre’s being chosen by her gods’ favor actually leaves her with few choices to make. (Something that is only hinted at here; Avatar drives that point horrifically home.)

Of course being “saved” means being a slave—hostage, technically—for the Dread Pirate Kazan, who happened by at just the right moment to scoop Phèdre up in a very, very long side quest involving Illyrian trade rights, a blood curse, and some double-crosses. Kazan himself and Phèdre’s resignation to once again suffer the affront of rape felt like a paler retread of her misadventures in Skaldia. See the mean warchief/pirate brought to heel by D’Angeline beauty; see the charming and humble smallfolk of his steading/village; see more people attractive in their own non-D’Angeline fashion marvel at Phèdre’s unique beauty and love of languages. And yes, just because Phèdre agrees to sleep with Kazan in order to gain his help stopping Melisande’s plot, the power dynamics are all in Kazan’s favor—especially since she admits she would never have chosen him as a patron freely and not under duress.

Like Natalie, I didn’t read this as rape when I first read the original manuscript, but that was many years and before many conversations on consent. So, that was something different I noticed coming back to Chosen a second time.

Kazan soon became a welcome character, despite the uncomfortable boundaries of his pseudo-relationship with Phèdre. Learning about his blood guilt revealed a sad secret, but ultimately the best thing about Kazan was his need to cleanse the shadow from his soul. Which, of course, Phèdre couldn’t resist crashing, because anything forbidden is totally meant to experience at least once. Okay, that wasn’t her sole reason for helping Kazan through his trial, but Delaunay’s pupil does have a nose for trouble.

The thetalos itself made the whole pirate subplot worth it because it changed Phèdre, gave her some much-needed objective perspective on some of the past selfish, too-clever acts she committed that led to too much death. While Kazan struggles with his own demons, Phèdre suffers her own. But her strength through this ordeal is commendable. She is an anguissette. She is Kushiel’s. She can take it. And I found her to be a more empathetic, thoughtful person after facing some difficult truths about herself and still enduring.

The lack of Jocelin for most of this book is to Phèdre’s benefit. It’s really her first time to go it alone and she will need to know that she can for what lies ahead. The psychic scourging that she found with Kazan cleared her path for the endgame.

While I enjoyed Kazan and the visit to Hellenic lands—I wish she had a romp with the naked Archon just to bring a bit of fun back to the story—I did think this book suffered from middle-child syndrome. There’s some comfort in the formula of Kushiel’s Legacy, but my first read-through found Chosen to be a bit predictable. Beyond the ramifications of the thetalos, there was too little of the A-plot and overall tension. I never really doubted that Phèdre wouldn’t save her queen—though Ysandre’s sharp mind isn’t to be underestimated, either. I never believed that Joscelin would convert and be the savior of the Yeshuites. Hyacinthe is mentioned hardly at all. But we know that will be rewarded in the next book.

Reading Kushiel’s Chosen for the second time, I definitely enjoyed it more—especially the end with Joscelin’s big fight and being forced to admit that even Cassiline warriors are susceptible to corruption, and the begrudging respect I felt that once again Melisande had escaped D’Angeline justice. And with Phèdre naming Joscelin as her official consort at a fun party? Wonderful. Again, there’s that comfort of formula. It’s not a bad thing. Lastly, Kushiel’s Chosen left me with marked relief at the lack of a cliffhanger ending this time around. Phèdre and Joscelin are really, really going to need that decade of peace.

 

Natalie’s Commentary

Elua, all the blood in this part! Obviously Kushiel’s Dart set blood as a motif with Phèdre’s scarlet-flecked eye, the various lashes she endures, and her sangoire cloak. But while those all carry sexiness with them, Chosen (especially Part 2) was all about the nasty, bloody visuals: altars and cleavers stained with the blood of sacrifices and the juices of pomegranates; Fortun’s bloody handprint on the door; Phèdre holding Melisande’s bloodied handkerchief, a lover’s token; the krîavbhog with its red eyes; the “blood-shot darkness” of the thetalos. Blood is sustaining, but lose too much of it and you’re dead. It’s a delicate balance to tip.

Speaking of delicate balances, both times I found myself mildly disappointed when Phèdre was unable to take Melisande up on her offer of being her imprisoned plaything. It would have made for a very different second half of the novel, but I would totally read 350 pages of Melisande and Phèdre’s erotic mind games. Alas, she toppled from a cliff and got swept up by a pirate ship instead—which is much more thrilling, if less satisfying.

I’m a little abashed to admit that I didn’t really read Phèdre and Kazan’s pseudo-relationship as rape. Or rather—I knew rationally that yes, Phèdre would never have chosen him as a patron, and she was forced to sell her body in order to keep any sort of power about where they were sailing to. As she reflects before the first time they have sex:

’Twas nonetheless true that he had forced me into this bargain, and that I did not forgive. Still, I had made it, and so doing, given consent. And as I was Naamah’s Servant, so was I bound by it. I thought on that, smoothing fragrant oil into my skin in the steam-wreathed room. Naamah herself had made bargains for less.

Mayhap there were other ways she could have achieved the same end, but such was her gift, and such she gave. Well, I thought, combing out my hair in my bedchamber; if I am truly her Servant, it is much the same. Let it be done, then, and the bargain kept freely. My lady Naamah, pray you see that Kazan Atrabiades keeps his as well as I do. I am in your hand, and must trust to your mercy.

And yet, as they slowly warmed to each other and there was some genuine attraction, I considered it more of an unfortunate situation than coercion. It’s not until after the thetalos, when Kazan stops touching her and even apologizes for forcing her into that arrangement as her only decision, that the book truly addresses it as rape, and I really saw it as such.

This reread was where I truly appreciated how much Phèdre’s nature skews her sexual identity. She is a living embodiment of the excuse of “she wants it”/”she’s asking for it.” Even after she and Kazan have set the terms of their arrangement, her body responds to his roguish, plundering pirate ways. It helps things along, but that’s more insidious than if she had had no sexual response. Because she never would have put herself in that situation if she had any power. It’s a disquieting thing to realize, but especially relevant now that more narratives of very different definitions of rape are prevalent in the current discussion of rape.

Being Kushiel’s Dart almost betrays Phèdre in nearly every interaction with Melisande. Even on the first read, I found it tiresome when Phèdre almost lets Melisande go during the riots at the Temple of Asherat. At the point where this woman has murdered her friends, imprisoned her, and tried twice now to overturn her country’s throne, Phèdre still gets weak-limbed at the sight of her? That part is understandable enough, but then Phèdre nearly jumps at the chance to trade her imprisonment for baby Imriel’s whereabouts—right after she and Joscelin were all “let’s never be apart again!” That didn’t ring true and went too far for me, making Melisande almost Mary Sue-ish in her impossible attractiveness.

Theresa summarizes really well how much Phèdre is forced to come into her own once she confronts the notion of being well and truly alone. This portion of the book also chips away at some of Phèdre’s Mary Sue shell from Part 1, as she grows frustrated when she fails to pick up the Illyrian language immediately; she also realizes that she lacks Joscelin’s serene patience during periods of idleness.

In rereading these books, I’ve been unconsciously imagining Kushiel’s Legacy as a TV show, with each book making up one season. Both times I reread Chosen, I groaned aloud when Phèdre and co. finally outwitted Melisande and then the bells started ringing. It felt like Carey was unnecessarily extending the plot. But then I envisioned the Melisande confrontation as a penultimate episode, and that visual—of the riders racing off—as the cliffhanger to the season finale, and it fit a lot better.

Ditto with Phèdre’s ingenious idea about the coins. It takes up such a small part of the almost-700-page book, but it arguably saves the realm by proving that Ysandre wasn’t assassinated. After a book about masks, hidden identities, and betrayals, we needed that bit of closure.

And as this book ends, yet again old soothsayers are attracted to Phèdre. Before they leave La Serenissima, Bianca, the head priestess of Asherat’s temple, prophecies, “Serve true, and remember what others have named you; ten years’ respite shall be yours if you do.”

Considering all the foreshadowing she puts in, I have to imagine that Carey had a detailed outline for the entire trilogy. Because we know that going in to Kushiel’s Avatar, Phèdre and Joscelin will have enjoyed a decade together without any worries, until they go to find Imriel. Although does Bianca’s prediction mean she wants Phèdre to embrace her lypiphera/anguissette tendencies? Or is this Bianca’s way of saying, “Don’t worry, you’re going to be doling out plenty of pain, murder, and blood in the next book”?


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 forgot how much of a crush she has on Nicola L’Envers. You can read more of her work on Twitter and elsewhere.

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