“Serve true, and remember what others have named you; ten years’ respite shall be yours if you do.”
Kushiel’s Chosen closed with this warning, and Kushiel’s Avatar opens on the other side of ten years, with a prophetic dream calling anguissette/lypiphera Phèdre nó Delaunay to serve the gods of Terre d’Ange once more. Only this time, they’re turning her into a veritable Job, with their overlapping demands.
You thought that the island prison of La Dolorosa was bleak? Get ready to willingly lead yourselves into the kingdom that died and lives. Kushiel’s Reread is getting dark. We’re also 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 1-43)
A dream of Hyacinthe shakes Phèdre out of her decade of comfort, prosperity, and love into a new quest:
- They discover that Hyacinthe is the new Master of the Straits, and just as powerless to leave his post
- Phèdre vows to find the Name of God to free him
- But first, Melisande sends her a letter—her son Imriel has been kidnapped!
- Starting with the Sanctuary of Elua where Imriel was being raised under their noses, Phèdre and Joscelin retrace his steps to figure out where he disappeared to
- Along with other local children, Imriel was kidnapped
- Unlike the other children, he was sold into slavery and carried through Amílcar and Iskandria
- They finally trace him to Drujan and the city of Daršanga, “the kingdom that died and lives”
- Filled with Elua’s presence and then faced with the threat of Elua and Kushiel leaving her, Phèdre decides that Joscelin will sell her into slavery in the Mahrkagir’s zenana so she can rescue Imriel
Because Phèdre knows that as an anguissette, fated “to endure suffering untold, with infinite compassion,” she is the perfect victim.
Divine Inspiration: “Ill thoughts, ill words, ill deeds,” is the precept of Angra Mainyu, the Lord of Darkness embodied by the mad ruler of Drujan. Everything the Mahrkagir and his followers do is a perversion of everything Elua stands for: love, beauty, kindness. What is an anguissette for, if not to balance the cosmic scales? But while the Lord of Light has Phèdre on his side, Angra Mainyu has his bone-priests, whose shadows’ mere touch can cause death.
Midwinter Masque Madness: There is none! Boo. Phèdre skips over all the fêtes for Drustan’s spring return, too, and heads right into the action. Even the parties in Khebbel-im-Akkad are muted affairs, due to the dire nature of Phèdre’s quest.
Luck Be a Lady: When Melisande’s letter first arrives, Joscelin is scared that Phèdre will let Melisande put her leash on her again. (By the end of Part 1, he’d probably prefer that over Daršanga.) But Ti-Philippe stands up for her:
“I’m not afraid of your facing Melisande Shahrizai. Whatever it is between you, you’ve outfaced her twice before, and won.” He glanced at Joscelin. “People forget that.”
“I don’t forget!” Joscelin raised his voice sharply. […] “But I don’t trust anyone’s luck to continue forever, even Phèdre’s.”
But how does luck factor in when Phèdre is throwing herself headlong into danger and darkness?
Love is All You Need: Phèdre and Joscelin have so much happy sex in the beginning that it’s pretty damn clear that a) their love is going to be bent almost to the breaking point, and b) they’re going to get a child, one way or another.
Near the end of Part 1, Joscelin confirms that they’ll keep looking for Imriel, with this altered version of Elua’s precept: “Love as thou wilt, and pray like hell it is enough.” That he’s added a part-joke, part-plea to the usual phrase speaks to how dire the situation is, and both of their dwindling faith in love alone saving them.
Stranger in a Strange Land: A D’Angeline courtesan’s reaction to women in a Muslim-inspired country provides an interesting study in contrasts—namely, that Phèdre is not used to being veiled and separated from her male traveling companions. In fact, she didn’t even think the rules would apply to her.
From the Editor’s Desk: Tor Books editor Claire Eddy says: “Kushiel’s Avatar remains one of my favorite all-time reads and a project that is dear to my heart. There are sensual aspects to the book; in some ways, this is the darkest of the three books in the trilogy, and the one that we had the hardest choices to make with regard to the content. But there is a purity of spirit to Phèdre, an almost religious aspect that Jacqueline had been building up throughout the books. It is, in turns, heartbreaking, powerful, and brilliant. Of the three, I think this is the one that would have stayed the same even with the new worldview influenced by Fifty Shades of Grey.”
Dark, darker, darkest, that’s how Kushiel’s Legacy goes.
Everything and yet nothing that’s happened to Phèdre in Kushiel’s Dart and Kushiel’s Chosen can prepare her for what happens in Kushiel’s Avatar. We come to Phèdre ten years after the end of Chosen, when her life has been at peace, she has grown into her peerage, her maturity and beauty are in full bloom, and she and her consort Joscelin are finally largely content. Phèdre is at her most outwardly confident, and her narrative voice shows it, too. Less full of wonder, less haughty, more matter-of-fact, practically mellow. She’s in her thirties and knows more fully who she is inside and possesses a wisdom of the wider world after her many misadventures.
And yet, there’s that prophesied end to ten years of happiness, and this is where the circle begun in Dart begins to close.
While her best childhood friend was barely mentioned in Chosen, Phèdre never forgot Hyacinthe and the sacrifice he made on her behalf. The guilt of his imprisonment lays heavily on her and she’s more determined than ever to find a way to free him, she who knows better than most what it is to be a slave. There’s more than just guilt tied to Hyacinthe—Phèdre has become more contemplative about what might have been between them, had he not become the Master of the Straits’ successor. It doesn’t quite ring true to me; Joscelin is the Perfect Companion in every way. I never ’shipped Phèdre and Hyacinthe; though I loved him dearly, I liked him as just a friend. I didn’t like their intimate moments in Dart, though I understood them. D’Angeline sex-positive attitudes aside, it just seemed that maybe Phèdre could use a platonic best friend in her life.
Her most vivid dreams of Hyacinthe are not the nights they slept together, but of the dark-haired child she met in Night’s Doorstep. A child not so unlike Imriel de la Courcel. Children and parents come up quite a bit in this installment: Phèdre and Joscelin have decided to remain childless, which is interesting and not entirely unexpected. But as she agrees to search for the missing Imriel, Phèdre thinks of her own birth parents more than she has before, and how Delaunay was more her father than anyone, much like she imagines Imriel might be less Melisande’s son because she hasn’t raised him. Regardless, no child deserves Imriel’s fate of being kidnapped by slavers.
What made Avatar darkest of all the Kushiel’s books to me was not the terrors of the Mahrkagir’s zenana, but of the absolute cruelty of Elua and his Companions. Was it Kushiel’s justice against Melisande that Phèdre’s warning should come to pass—that Imriel was in danger for being a Prince of the Blood and Melisande’s ace in the hole—in a subverted way? Abducted not for political reasons, but by random bad luck. The “randomness” of Imriel’s disappearance is thrown into question when Phèdre understands that Kushiel had a guiding hand in making Imriel’s fate inextricably tied to her own: In one hand, [Kushiel] holds a brazen key, and in the other a diamond, strung on a velvet cord…
What kind of gods would mark a mortal woman as their chosen and flood her with a spiritual, physical, emotional “joy and love and light” until it is nearly too much to bear? Then take it all away when she dared to be afraid in the face of the terrible task they asked of her, abandoning her forever to “the dull grey emptiness waiting to take their place”?
Phèdre’s faith is such a huge part of what makes her a heroine and what also makes my heart break for her. It just isn’t fair. The last anguissette only had to marry a nobleman to avert a civil war. Phèdre has lost and endured so much already, and the gods would still manipulate her to do their bidding. I’m with Joscelin: Can’t this be someone else’s war? His agony was palpable; as Elua requires such an ordeal from Phèdre, she asks equal support from Joscelin, knowing it is torture.
But, of course it can’t go any other way. Kushiel’s Chosen really is “the perfect victim,” just not solely for the Mahrkagir. Is it truly a privilege to be the embodiment of gods when they ask for so much in return? Is it truly a choice to walk willingly into hell with your soulmate or face forever being cut off from the identity that sustained you throughout your entire life?
The Mahrkagir is built up as an absolutely sickening presence, and my fear for Phèdre grew every time she learned some new horror about him, his bone-priests, and his god of darkness. That he wasn’t sporting horns and a forked tongue like some monster when he first meets Phèdre made him even worse, as bad as Phèdre’s revolting arousal at his slightest touch. When I first heard that a chunk of this book would take place in a harem, I, too, conjured up images of exoticism and eroticism like a naïve adept. But the reality of a zenana belonging to a mad king is painted as being more like the prison it is—with a pecking order for Phèdre to learn. But no amount of buildup can prepare one for watching a freshly castrated Skaldi boy cry, wondering what worse acts might wait—or have already befallen—Imriel.
And all of this before the Mahrkagir will inevitably call upon his newest toy and realize what he has truly gained in Phèdre, not just a perfect victim for himself, but a perfect weapon to scourge a kingdom under a spreading darkness. It’s easy to see how so many readers can be turned off by this point in the story. Phèdre herself might turn and run, too, if she wasn’t so trapped by the zenana’s walls and her sense of duty, her unflagging compassion.
I’m writing this commentary fresh off of Phèdre’s last line in Part 1:
Blessed Elua, I thought, what have I done?
What have you done to me?
I didn’t consider how difficult rereading Kushiel’s Avatar would be. This is the first Kushiel book where I truly have an emotional reaction while reading. Sure, the prior two books were equally shocking and scintillating, but the way Phèdre dreads entering Daršanga, I dreaded even just revisiting it in my mind. I finished Part 1 blinking back tears, which is awkward when you’re getting on the elevator with coworkers.
Note how I’m deflecting my reaction with humor, the way Joscelin does when he jokes, “Sure, let’s go to Khebbel-im-Akkad, because I’m not ready for us to go save Hyacinthe.” I completely agree with Theresa, by the way, that Phèdre’s romantic yearning for Hyacinthe, and jealousy over Sibeal’s love for him, doesn’t really ring true here. Yes, D’Angelines are wonderful at compartmentalizing love and sex, but Hyacinthe never seemed to serve that for Phèdre. It’s one thing for her to carry the guilt of his sacrifice for a dozen years, but this notion that Hyacinthe, once freed, will overshadow Joscelin’s continual crossroad choices for Phèdre is just laughable and feels more like a red herring than anything else. And yes, Phèdre really does need a platonic best friend… The closest thing I can think of is Favrielle, but she doesn’t really fit that, either. (The next choice would have been Nicola, but she’s Phèdre’s lover, so there’s that same dimension.)
While Chosen set up the cat-and-mouse game between Phèdre and Melisande as peers, they still don’t feel equal until their scenes together in Avatar. To see Melisande battered by grief, fear, and loss finally puts them on almost equal footing. I say “almost” because there’s that moment where Melisande kisses Phèdre and then withdraws, a rare but very necessary kindness.
I appreciate that both Chosen and Avatar laid out numerous branching paths for where Phèdre and Joscelin’s journey could have taken them, if only because it creates plenty of opportunities for fanfiction. During the first read, they had me believing that Pharaoh was the key to Imriel’s whereabouts. But breaking into a palace in Iskandria would have made the story more heist movie than the torturous escape we’ll see in Part 2.
When we started Kushiel’s Reread, I joked about how each book’s middle point has Phèdre thrown into some manner of slavery and/or imprisonment, with the special irony of Avatar being that she throws herself into it. And yet, in rereading I’ve come to appreciate Jacqueline Carey returning to this narrative crossroads each time. It’s the less obvious choice here, but as Phèdre learns upon entering the zenana, the capture and keeping of these women in the harem is not limited to their skin color, age, or upbringing. Under the Mahrkagir’s rule, with the fire of life and truth replaced by cold hatred, no one is immune.
And Joscelin! My heart hurt reading as he made his peace with the worst thing Phèdre has ever asked of him—to deliver them both into a living hell, to potentially lose her to depravity and madness and death. One of the worst parts to read was Joscelin’s private transformation into the disgraced lordling, disgusted with his woman. I’ve joked about Joscelin’s affinity for roleplaying before, but any of his fabrications are patched with truth. It’s weird how good he is at it, but also fitting, since (as Chosen established) Cassilines are basically blank slates. In some ways, it’s productive for Joscelin to grow and evolve as a person—but gah, it’s so emotionally difficult to watch it happen.
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.