Kushiel's Dart by Jacqueline Carey. Tor Fantasy, 2003. Paperback. 1015 pages.
I was a bit skeptical of Kushiel's Dart, largely due to the many reviews proclaiming it had too much BDSM and negatively portrayed the main female character (unfortunately, the cover didn't exactly help convince me otherwise). But I also saw reviews lauding it for its highly developed world building elements, the fantasy itself, and the strong characters created, so I decided to give it a go. Not to mention the fact that it is considered a classic and highly regarded fantasy novel - It can't be considered that for no reason, right?
Well, I loved it. This book is a masterpiece. Kushiel's Dart is slow-paced, but it will keep you hooked. I struggled through the first almost-hundred pages and wasn't sure if I was going to continue when suddenly I was just sucked in and I knew that I would be finishing. I ended up reading at least 100+ pages of this book a day and put most of my other books that I was currently reading on hold while I finished this one. Carey's prose is absolutely gorgeous and rather Tolkien-esque due to the in-depth, expansive descriptions and detailed fantasy world.
This is a dense, high fantasy novel that is completely deserving of being considered one of the classics of high fantasy. The world Carey created is immensely detailed and precise. In fact, there are such intricate political backgrounds and dealings that it is actually somewhat hard to follow - and it doesn't help that they are all rather complex French-inspired names, a language that I do not know well. Because of this, I thought I would be doomed since I am extremely bad at remembering all those minute political alliances and foreign names, but I found that it was not completely necessary to understand every single political reference mentioned. Only the main characters and players were necessary to follow, so it ended up working out extremely well. Kushiel's Dart really has it all: strong political intrigue, complex world building, strong religion and culture, and well-rounded, deeply three-dimensional dynamic character development that was truly exciting to follow. I really found myself connecting with many of the characters, and that is what really made this book come alive.
I felt that Phedre's journey from a young girl of the Night Court to the mature, confident Phedre at the end of the book was amazingly well done. She started out as a fairly confident girl, but she lacked a voice. She is quiet, observant, obedient, but she slowly develops into an even more confident woman who is also now independent, strong, and willing to speak her mind. When I first started this book, I felt that Phedre didn't have much of a personality, so I was worried that I would develop a strong interest for this book; fortunately, throughout the story she truly develops as a character, finding her own well-developed personality and even a great sense of humor along the way.
Now, to the more controversial aspect of Kushiel's Dart: yes, there is a fair bit of graphic BDSM-type sex that may make you uncomfortable if you are not a fan of that, but it was worked in beautifully. It wasn't campy or cheap sex, it was sex that fit and made the storyline. In fact, I found the entire way in which sex and courtesans were trained and used in this world to be extremely positive and, well, healthy. We learn that each student has a safe word that is clearly explained to any potential client (it's included in the paperwork, actually), and everything seems to be done in a very safe manner.
Regarding Phedre in particular: Phedre was struck with Kushiel's Dart at birth, causing her to be one of the few that experiences pain and pleasure as the same feeling, which is where the more violent sexual nature comes in. But to me, this is who Phedre is and what she was born to do - this is huge part of the entire storyline. It's not just some mindless smut added in. The first few sex scenes described are more detailed, but after a while they became much tamer and Carey tended to starting 'fading out' with no major details mentioned. After reading this book, I actually feel slightly frustrated with those who saw this BDSM as something vulgar and unnecessary, as I really didn't see it that way it's an integral part of this society and this storyline. But, of course, everyone's opinions are different and I am always respectful of differing opinions - especially over such an intense book as this one.
Overall, Kushiel's Dart is getting the big five-stars from me for its gorgeous prose and fantastical elements. This is a book that I would highly recommend to anyone that enjoys a strong fantasy novel with equally strong female characters and plot.
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