Kushiel’s Reread

The Perfect Vessel: Kushiel’s Avatar, Part 2

and

Our reread of Kushiel’s Legacy comes to a close! Whereas last week we were really beaten down by Phèdre and Joscelin’s willing entry into the hell of Daršanga, here we end on a joyous note. Not unlike Phèdre, filled with the Name of God, we’re brimming with new knowledge and insight into the trilogy—plus at least one disagreement about how things settle after the epic end of Kushiel’s Avatar.

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 44-102)

This is the longest portion we’ve covered in one go—over 50 chapters!

  • In Daršanga, Phèdre and Joscelin must both suffer their private hells: she giving in to utter depravity, him unable to do anything about it.
  • After gaining the trust of the women of the zenana, she plots how to murder the Mahrkagir and his men and escape.
  • With Imriel in tow, Phèdre and Joscelin prepare to search across Jebe-Barkal for the Name of God.
  • But Imriel stows away with them! Rather than return him promptly, they take him on their journey, where he becomes like a son to them.
  • In fact, it’s his love for Phèdre—well, and the intervention of the Sabaean women—that allows them to enter the temple on Kapporeth for her to discover the Name of God.
  • Upon returning to Terre d’Ange, Phèdre uses her Companion’s Star to request a boon of Queen Ysandre: That she and Joscelin foster Imriel.
  • Ysandre concedes, but punishes Phèdre for abducting Imriel: She must wait three months to rescue Hyacinthe.
  • Thankfully, three months is nothing to a man faced with eternity, and Phèdre is able to break the geis.
  • Hyacinthe decides to marry Sibeal and live in Alba, but not before Phèdre throws one last big party to see the Prince of Travelers off.

And it ends, as it begins, with Blessed Elua’s precept: Love as thou wilt.

 

Kushiel's Reread Tor.com Kushiel's Avatar book cover Jacqueline CareyStranger in a Strange Land: As horrible as the zenana was for Phèdre, in many ways the experience was vital for her, as she got acquainted with women of all different nationalities. Especially humbling was the realization that the Skotophagoti had been stealing women and children from across the world, yet Terre d’Ange had never caught wind of it.

Phèdre’s travels far south take her through a continent of many unfamiliar gods, goddesses and wildlife. (Seriously, Joscelin? You’re going to charge a rhino?! To say nothing of the blood-fly descriptions that made our skin crawl.) While less enamored of crocodile deities, Phèdre feels a natural kinship for Isis, who isn’t so unlike Naamah in her devotion to her spiritual husband.

Almost as a nod to a long-running series in-joke, Phèdre sure loves baths—from rinsing the grit of travel off her at various stops along the way, to the forced sojourn (caused by the rhino) that reunites her and Joscelin.

Divine Inspiration: In Phèdre’s travels, multiple Hellenes call her “lypiphera” despite her having never met them. She later discovers that her name has been spoken in many lands, and that the Hellenic legend is much the same as Kushiel’s Dart: The gods pick a mortal to suffer their (yes, their) pain of existence.

Phèdre has a bit of an Indiana Jones moment when a mute priest leads her to the broken tablets containing the Name of God. Unable to speak the holy alphabet outside of her one task, the name is ever on the tip of her tongue as she marvels at stars, Joscelin, Imriel, Melisande… everything around her seems touched by the blessed. When Phèdre at last does speak the Name of God to banish Rahab and free Hyacinthe from his island, her delegation all hears a different word in the middle of it.

The word, the One God’s name, is itself made of… love.

Love is All You Need: Elua’s hand reached even into the darkest corners of Daršanga. On one hand, the Mahrkagir was experiencing love for the first time, even if he couldn’t see it. Phèdre could and knew that trust would hold the key to his undoing. And yet Phèdre didn’t quite see her love for Imriel grow—or, she certainly didn’t expect it. The maternal love felt so perfectly realized, a natural progression that began with the moment Imri snuck into the barren garden and gave the prisoners of the zenana hope of spring and the promise of freedom.

As Imriel grew to love Phèdre and Joscelin, he was upset to see them still divided after Daršanga. So by the time Joscelin caught the giant fish and they sneaked off for some alone time, everyone was ready for them to reconcile. It signaled that while the cruelties suffered in Daršanga would never be forgotten, they could be far enough behind the both of them to begin the process of healing. And remembering what real love and tenderness felt like.

Just as Part 1 saw Joscelin altering Blessed Elua’s precept, Phèdre does the same in Part 2, when she pardons the young Sabaean mother Ardah, who betrayed their plan out of fear: “Love as thou wilt. And may you find wisdom in it.” It’s cool how the precept keeps evolving.

Happy Endings: Literally the party of the century. Phèdre plans in secret one of the biggest parties in the City of Elua’s history, and it all takes place in Hyacinthe’s hometown, Night’s Doorstep. Tsingani folk and D’Angeline nobles alike dance in the streets, share wine, and toast the departure of the Master of the Straits. And if you didn’t feel a lump in your throat when all of the adepts of the Thirteen Houses of the Court of Night-Blooming Flowers streamed down Mont Nuit in tribute to the foremost courtesan in the world… well, you have no heart.

 

Theresa’s Commentary

Love as thou wilt.

Of course that would be the final line.

What a perfect joyous ending to a book I remembered as overwhelmingly dark. Revisiting Avatar was eye-opening. I remembered much of the torments of the zenana and very little of what happened after.

Who can blame me when the zenana was painted so well: tedium, blind fear, Phèdre’s tentative fact-finding missions to learn where Imriel was and what ill deed he might be meant for, meeting the other women and hearing their tales of kidnap, torture, and witnessing the sad comfort some found in opium. The cruelty towards one another as self-preservation and the distrust of a lone D’Angeline like Phèdre, who is acutely aware that she came to Daršanga willingly. It definitely dashed any exoticism the word “seraglio” might provoke.

The pacing of the zenana chapters never faltered, rising in tension and foreshadowing with each page. Just as I was starting to feel Phèdre’s restlessness, Kaneka’s dice foretold that the Mahrkagir would call for Phèdre every night. It was a meeting we knew, as Kushiel knew, was fated. The perfect victim for the perfect perpetrator. Again and again, Phèdre’s body betrayed her with desire as the Mahrkagir made her confront her ill words, ill thoughts, ill deeds.

What is worse? Maybe only the open cruelty in the festal hall. How icy cold Joscelin had to be! I can picture it and shudder. As Natalie pointed out last week, Joscelin is secretly an excellent actor and this was his toughest role. I didn’t think he had such a terrible ordeal until Phèdre actually saw him surrounded by slavering drunk warriors who love to torture women, children, and dogs, making himself to seem a leopard among wolves, restraining himself from attempting to kill everyone on the spot. And for Phèdre to have to see Joscelin from her seat next to the doting Mahrkagir? I definitely felt her shame, it was that palpable.

And Imriel? The things he suffered for so long before Phèdre arrived? No wonder he spat in her face, this woman who seemed to enjoy, in her fashion, that which gave everyone else nightmares. I liked the reminders that Imriel was the same age Phèdre was when she was first fostered at Delaunay’s and the same age as Joscelin when he joined the Cassiline training. At this point, he doesn’t know who he really is or where he comes from, an extra blow to a young psyche that has suffered so much. And knowing what we do of Imriel when he comes of age and gets his own trilogy, the long-term effects of his time in Drujan touch his sexuality in ways that take a long time for Imriel to accept.

By trusting herself to Elua’s plan, Phèdre’s successful escape plan seemed wholly righteous with Phèdre running on pure adrenaline, costumed in a red dress, like a cleansing flame in the darkness.

I’d praise the pacing in Avatar up to a very specific point: the long, long journey to Saba. While I can agree that these chapters seemed intended to offset the horrors of Daršanga and show the burgeoning closeness between Phèdre, Joscelin and Imriel, after Khebbel-im-Akkad and the assassination attempt on Imriel, there was a lot of exposition. While I wanted to watch Phèdre say goodbye to each woman of the zenana—particularly Kaneka, who was a commanding presence, beyond scholarly pursuits of the Name of God—there just wasn’t much story, though there were evocative descriptions of the natural beauty of Jebe-Barkal.

The biggest thing that happened—and it was big—was when Phèdre and Joscelin made love for the first time since she killed the Mahrkagir months previously. It felt realistic that all of them would feel the traumas of their time in Drujan, especially Imriel who admits that sometimes he missed the zenana because he understood how things worked there.

Phèdre getting the long sought-after Name of God was suitably exciting, but not as memorable as when she finally got to use it. Ysandre’s punishment for Phèdre’s “abduction” of Imriel was so frustrating, but so just. And was the three month wait meant to seem a personal request, too? If my husband traveled to my side by sea in the spring, I wouldn’t have let anyone test the boundaries of the Master of the Straits in the winter, either. This forced house arrest as it was provided a wonder chance to visit with some series-favorite characters one last time, too. Particularly poignant was Thelesis de Mornay, royal poet. I thought for sure we’d hear one final poem from her when Phèdre was summoned to Ysandre’s music parlor, but, alas.

The last chapters of Kushiel’s Avatar remind me of Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King—the movie, not the books. Many false endings. Which I loved, because after re-reading these three novels, I didn’t want to say goodbye. Hyacinthe is much like Frodo Baggins after returning from Mount Doom; they can’t go home again. The prime of his youth and some joy have left him, and if I never quite fell for Phèdre’s quasi-romantic feelings for her childhood co-conspirator, it was definitely sorrowful to see Hyacinthe so alien. (And maybe Sibeal is more like Faramir, knowing that she wasn’t quite her spouse’s first choice? There’s something bittersweet in that.) And I’m with Phèdre: The Prince of Travelers—and Kushiel’s Legacy—should never disappear quietly into the mist without a giant goodbye party.

I rarely get time to reread standalone novels I love, let alone a series of novels that clock in close to a combined 2,400 pages. But coming back to Terre D’Ange was as comforting to me as… warms baths after long travels are to Phèdre. Following the life of an orphaned young girl as she becomes more than just the foremost courtesan in the world—though that made for fun reading—but a grown woman destined to become a respected confidante to royalty, mother to her greatest enemy’s son, and the weapon of her gods was an adventure like no other. As much as I appreciated Imriel’s story in the next Kushiel’s trilogy, I chose not to continue on after Kushiel’s Mercy. There’s just nothing quite like seeing the world through Phèdre’s dart-stricken eyes and the shadow she casts is too big for anyone else to really outshine.

Now, if we could get a Melisande-centric prequel series…

 

Natalie’s Commentary

In reading the latter half of Avatar—and, naturally, considering the series as a whole—I couldn’t stop fixating on the notion of Phèdre as a vessel. Over the two years or so that Avatar spans, Phèdre serves as a vessel for both the Mahrkagir and his impossible cruelty and the splendor of the Name of God. She carries within her utter darkness and absolute light. In Part 1, Eleazar ben Enokh told her, “You must make of the self a vessel where the self is not.” She learns this twofold: first by locking away her self-awareness as she gives in to depravity with the Mahrkagir, and later—the truer way—in sacrificing everything for Imriel, and recognizing that he would do the same for her. It’s a fitting ending for someone who has spent this entire series as a vessel of one kind or another, in temporary and permanent ways.

The notion of woman as vessel isn’t new, as womanhood is defined several times over by the notion of carrying: the vagina as vessel, the womb as vessel, the heart as vessel. Physically and figuratively, Phèdre carries her patrons’ desires, messages, schemes, and punishments. She bears pain for other mortals, but also bears other pain, sacrifice, and death upon others.

And, of course, she bears the Name of God. I know that Phèdre has grown up from the Mary Sue we accused her of turning into in the beginning of Kushiel’s Chosen, but I can still appreciate the frustration of the Sabaeans and the Yeshuites that this beautiful, angel-born woman gets to carry the Sacred Name and they don’t. Yes, she’s gods-touched, but the way that her journey takes her into other cultures, to mine their religions and use this sacred word for her own means, is an interesting commentary on appropriation.

But I can’t just end with the generalization of women being vessels, because Hyacinthe is one, too! Something that I didn’t appreciate until I reread the chapters on the Master of the Straits’ isle, and re-met Hyacinthe with his shifting sea eyes and the power that stays with him even after the geis is broken and he’s free of his eternal imprisonment.

To be honest, on both reads, I didn’t quite get the point of Phèdre’s final sacrifice for Hyacinthe. (Really, that whole portion seemed a bit shoehorned in, as we were so close to the end of the novel.) After building up such strong bonds with Joscelin and Imriel, she would just jump over the edge of the ship and take on the geis for herself? I know logically that it made the most sense to conjure and banish Rahab when Phèdre herself bore the figurative chains, but in reading, it seemed an unnecessary risk. Especially when she clearly expected something to happen romantically with Hyacinthe, and his response was to distance himself from Terre d’Ange again by going to Alba with Sibeal.

Interestingly, Theresa and I had completely different reads of where Phèdre and Hyacinthe end up at the end of the trilogy. I thought that they became polyamorous lovers, with the occasional reunion every few years, based on this line: “If it came to pass, on the odd year or three, that the night breezes called your name in my voice, Phèdre nó Delaunay, would you answer?” However, Theresa drew on the line about Sibeal, who “sees Phèdre in [Hyacinthe’s] dreams but understands.” Theresa said:

She really does remind me of Faramir, knowing that Éowyn loved Aragorn in a romantic, idealized way. But the reality was that Faramir was there to understand who she was when all hope had left her in the Houses of Healing and their romance grew out of mutual respect, not daydreams of glory in battle.

If that’s the case—and I defer to Theresa on a lot of these specifics—then I’m relieved. The Hyacinthe/Phèdre/Joscelin love triangle always seemed forced to me. And don’t get me wrong—I love the idea of Phèdre having this poly lifestyle that Joscelin tolerates… but I thought that was best expressed through a character like Nicola L’Envers, who clearly gives Phèdre something Joscelin can’t. Not Hyacinthe, who she’s clinging to because he literally was an entirely different person when she fell in love with him.

Other ending thoughts…

I love the idea of a cult building around Melisande! Considering this is a woman whose beauty is so poetic that they adjusted references in the epic poetry rather than ban it, it makes perfect sense. She’s such a powerful presence that we can’t just say goodbye to her when Phèdre did. In fact, it makes more sense that she would be a more stable presence in the Imriel trilogy than Phèdre is.

When I finished Kushiel’s Legacy about a year ago, I immediately started in on the Imriel books. So, I saw plenty of foreshadowing in my reread of Avatar, especially as concerns young Imri and his desperation to find goodness within himself. I appreciated how those books treated him as more of a normal person (rather than a Servant of Naamah); how he was able to have more romantic pratfalls than his foster-mother, albeit with the shadow of Kushiel hanging overhead; and the increased presence of magic that we only just begin to see in Avatar. I’ll look forward to writing about these books, whether it’s through a reread or specific essays.

I still have so many essays I want to write about this trilogy! This reread made me turn these books inside out and examine them from all angles, yet I feel like there’s plenty more to say.


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 is currently searching for all the Kushiel fanfiction on Archive of Our Own. You can read more of her work on Twitter and elsewhere.

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