There’s an amusing running joke in The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, Diana Wynne Jones’ faux-encyclopedia/travel guide to fantasy tropes: the entry for “BATH” warns travelers to “take care, however. Baths are the occasion for SEX with one of more of your FELLOW TRAVELERS. No matter how irritating you have found her/him up to then, after or during the Bath you will find her/him irresistible. It is probably something in the WATER.” Later entries for SEX and VIRGIN include a note to “see also BATH.” Travel through the fantasy genre itself, and you’ll find that often sex has been reduced to little more than a tired, predictable cliché, usually at the expense of the fairer sex. Female characters are routinely raped in the name of “character development.” Or femme fatales use their wiles to manipulate men. That’s assuming readers even get the female perspective; as with the erotically charged “bath”, sex in fantasy may serve as little more than a foregone conclusion for the male hero’s relationship arc, at which point the action “fades to black” and whatever happens after seems to be of no import.
Then there’s Jacqueline Carey’s epic fantasy Kushiel’s Dart, which is about sex from the cover: a topless woman artfully concealing her nakedness while showing off the inked marque that represents her indentured servitude and her service to the goddess of pleasure. It’s about sex from page 1, in which Phèdre nó Delaunay, “a whore’s unwanted get,” is sold into bondage in the Court of Night-Blooming Flowers, facing a similar, if tedious, future as just another warm body in a brothel. It’s still about sex 700 pages later, when Phèdre, now a famous courtesan, channels the goddess Naamah by offering up her body to foreign rulers to avert war. But Kushiel’s Dart rises above other entries in the genre by first demystifying sex and then tapping into the nuances of the act and how it affects the characters’ every other action: celebrations, murders, alliances, battles, and victories.
In Terre d’Ange, sex is simultaneously no big deal and the biggest deal. Seeking out and enjoying pleasure is so ingrained in society that a visit to the Night Court provokes little more than good-natured jabs. Courtesans are among the most revered members of society because what they do is literally a sacred act. And whether you’re lying with your life partner or a partner for a night, very little is taboo.
I like to describe Terre d’Ange as the trifecta of non-heteronormativity: queer, kinky, and nonmonogamous. Sexual orientation in Phèdre’s world is neither demonized nor agonized over; D’Angelines love who they love, and most seem to be bisexual, though there are certainly those who prefer one gender over the other. Not everyone in the series is into BDSM, but considering this is from Phèdre’s point of view, we meet a lot of doms. In keeping with the kingdom’s founding precept of “love as thou wilt,” many D’Angelines seem to be open to the notion of multiple partners at any given time; each couple, it would seem, have their own definitions of commitment, from a closed marriage to multiple situational “friends with benefits” arrangements.
The book is not saying that everyone should embody all three of these qualities; it simply offers them up as options.
Despite how much sex pervades D’Angeline culture, Kushiel’s Dart is not what the fanfiction community has termed a Porn Without Plot (PWP). First and foremost, the series is about the descendants of angels/gods playing out their mortal games while fielding occasional interference from the angels who founded their land. Those human concerns center on the game of thrones, the interplay between courtly intrigue and clever spycraft. And Anafiel Delaunay hits upon the idea of training young courtesans, with their foundation of social etiquette and capacity for learning, in the covert arts and self-defense. By arming them with knowledge to dissemble and manipulate their patrons, as well as the ability to defend themselves should situations go awry, Delaunay molds Phèdre and her foster-brother Alcuin into spies, gathering intel on the peers of the realm during their assignations. It’s kind of genius, actually—in a society as sexualized as Terre d’Ange, it’s the equivalent of hiding in plain sight.
Political intrigue, fancy feasts, sumptuous balls, wars, godly interference… What’s brilliant about Kushiel’s Dart is that it doesn’t stray too far from these traditional fantasy tropes; Carey simply imbues those tropes with a sexual dimension. Consider how fantasy is full of mortals suffering through well-intentioned gifts from the gods, fairies, or prophecies; think of Ella Enchanted’s eponymous heroine, unable to fight her compulsion to follow orders, or Chosen One Harry Potter, whose mighty reputation not only precedes him but actively trips him up in almost every single interaction. Why should Phèdre’s case be any different? Her inconveniences are just more titillating, like when a tattoo session leaves her writhing on the table in bliss from the sharp needles. Or how she occasionally hears the beating of bronze wings, an indicator that her god Kushiel has turned his fierce, masked gaze on her, his anguisette.
But once sex is introduced, it colors how a character, how a piece of work, is perceived. With this emphasis in everything from the worldbuilding to the major plot, er, climaxes, Kushiel’s Dart often gets unfairly lumped into romance, with Phèdre uncharitably written off as a shallow erotic fantasy of total submission. When sex is seemingly the most important thing, or at least the most obvious thing, about a woman, it runs the risk of stripping her down to a one-dimensional being, a stock character to be easily categorized and managed. The thing is, Phèdre is a fantasy—she’s the fantasy of a woman who can be a sexual being and still be more than that.
Phèdre can enjoy the hell out of sex without being a slut. Her affinity for being whipped has no bearing on her ability to master foreign tongues. During an assignation, she can tremble with the humiliation of enjoying being depraved, but during a diplomatic meeting she can look her fellow ambassador in the eyes unflinching, and these things are not mutually exclusive. What Phèdre does in the bedchamber does not have any bearing on her competency in a nonsexual setting.
Now, to be clear, Phèdre’s bedroom romps do have quite a bit of bearing on the plot itself. Her assignations both yield the information Delaunay desires while also putting her into a number of harrowing situations where she’s helpless at the hands of people who would have little difficulty staging a murder in the form of an especially rough session taken too far. And let’s not forget the latter portion of Dart that can be summed up as “Phèdre’s magical vagina rallies the troops to her side.” While she later matures into a more nuanced ambassador, her early days of negotiating do involve a fair amount of physical follow-through.
Yet before you go shouting “Mary Sue!”, Phèdre’s position as Kushiel’s earthly tool keeps her from being impossibly perfect and getting everything she wants. Pricked as she is by Kushiel’s Dart, she’s often at the mercy—in a very unsexy, not-fun way—of whatever master plan the gods have not seen fit to let her in on. And despite her beauty and fast-healing skin that make her such an ideal anguisette, there’s also no small measure of arrogance; barely out of her teens in Dart, Phèdre regularly overestimates her ability to get out of thorny situations. And sometimes she’s just a complete idiot in love, utterly failing Delaunay’s training by letting the sex get the better of the spying.
Think of your favorite hero/nemesis matchups: Batman/Joker. Sherlock Holmes/Moriarty. Professor X/Magneto. The Doctor/The Master. These pairings are distorted mirror images of one another, or they’re duos who started out with the same background or powers that, if not for a key point of divergence, might have ended up on the same side. Phèdre and Melisande Shahrizai are no different: both clever, sharp-witted, with a love of covertcy and, yes, sex. Both are touched by Kushiel, but in inverse ways: Where Phèdre was “blessed” with an anguisette’s capacity for submission, House Shahrizai are scions of Kushiel, both nature and nurture making them doms with a sadistic streak.
You know what makes these two such a compelling pair? You guessed it—the sexual tension. Fans will joke about ’shipping these other heroes and nemeses, scrutinizing their interactions for any possible shred of subtext. Phèdre/Melisande is supertext, baby.
While Alcuin gets his fair share of intel from the bedchambers of D’Angelines, Phèdre is Delaunay’s greatest triumph. If not for the red mote in her eye, Delaunay wouldn’t have plucked her out of obscurity. Because not only did he see a courtesan-spy in the making, but he also saw the subterfuge in her submission. Her patrons believe that she will be so distracted by the interweaving of pain and pleasure that they will have complete control over her, from the moment she steps through their doors to the moment they release her. Instead, they are the ones distracted, failing to notice the gears turning in her mind even as she takes humiliating lashes of the whip and dangerous branding from a red-hot poker.
Even Melisande, even Phèdre’s greatest love (well, one of them) and greatest nemesis, falls prey to this assumption that one who is submissive has no control. But there’s a difference, as Phèdre’s dear friend Hyacinthe points out, between submission and total surrender: “That which yields is not always weak.”
Carey normalizes all manner of queer sexualities in Kushiel’s Dart, crafting an open-minded foundation within which to set this compelling tale. Would that this kind of nuanced representation be the baseline for all fantasy stories. But the most remarkable part of Phèdre’s saga is that it’s about a sexual woman who is continually underestimated and proves, over and over, that she is worthy of so much more.
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Natalie Zutter is so excited you’re all picking up Kushiel’s Dart. Talk courtesan-spies and sex-positive fantasy with her on Twitter!