Kushiel's Legacy – Book List
Actually three trilogies set in the same world, Kushiel's Legacy is medieval fantasy set in a semi-alternate version of Europe, where all the countries' names have been changed to protect the innocent. The majority of the stories take place in Terre D'Ange, which is an alternate version of France. The D'Angelines claim to be descended from Elua, son of the One God's son on Earth, Yeshua ben Yosef. They also have radically liberal sexual mores; prostitution is considered a holy calling.
The first trilogy follows Phèdre nó Delaunay, an orphaned trained in the "service of Naamah" (prostitution) at the Night Court, pretty much the most prestigious place to be a servant of Naamah. Adopted into the household of spy Anafiel Delaunay, who trains her in the "arts of covertcy," Phèdre ends up involved in an impending invasion of Terre D'Ange by the Skaldic warriors to the north. Over the course of three books, she surmounts increasingly powerful obstacles and has lots of sex. But it's all good.
The second trilogy is narrated from the perspective of Imriel de la Courcel, Phèdre's adopted son. He's also the son of the traitor who engineered the Skaldic invasion in the first trilogy; this shadow hangs over him for all three books. And it doesn't help that he falls in love with the heir to the D'Angeline throne. Imriel's trilogy is not as good as Phèdre's by any measure, so if you're wondering "which" trilogy to read, definitely read the first one. Whether you read the second is up to you.
I haven't read the third trilogy yet, though I intend to.
- Mass Market Paperback, 1015 pages
- Tor, 2001
Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.
I picked up Kushiel's Dart because I noticed one of the later books in this series at the library, but I wanted to start at the beginning. I'm glad for that. Jacqueline Carey weaves a dense, intricate narrative—I would have been lost had I started in the middle!
Carey's writing was great, although the prose was often indigo-bordering-on purple, and I could have done with a little less exposition. There were times when the world-building was laid on thick. Even though the story was told in first-person, this didn't stop Carey from divulging excess amounts of world history through the mouth of her narrator.
I enjoyed Carey's allegory of western Europe and Judeo-Christian/Norse mythologies. She successfully established the world independently of the narrative while making the motivations and actions of the characters blend with their respective nations' cultures. Although the world of Terre D'Ange lacks overt uses of magic (with the possible exception of the Master of the Straits), there's quite a bit of superstition and religiosity. Overall, the book was very believable.
It took a while to pick up a comfortable pace. The first part was dry, as Phèdre recounts to us her childhood and upbringing in the Night Court. The story gets interesting once Phèdre grows up and becomes a tool for Anafiel Delaunay. Likewise, Phèdre's true mettle emerges during her captivity amongst the Skaldi. She proves herself a complex and worthy character, debating the morality of her actions even as she resigns herself to doing what is necessary to further a greater cause (in this case, the survival of Terre D'Ange). Interestingly enough, Carey has chosen not to make the loss of innocence a motif here (although an argument could be made that Jocelyn loses his innocence over the course of the story). Rather, Phèdre, as an anguissette is far from innocent. It's the fact that she enjoys her suffering that makes Phèdre a conflicted person. And that's a dangerous personality trait, especially for a prisoner to have.
Kushiel's Dart can get fairly racy, although tastefully so—it's not so much explicit as it is frequently suggestive. I didn't know this going into the book, prompting two of my friends, who have previously read the series, to express surprise that I would be reading it. But it's definitely not extraneous sex (unlike, say, the entire Sword of Truth series…). Carey has made sexuality a very prominent aspect of D'Angeline culture, and also of Phèdre's personality, as a "Servant of Naamah" (i.e., a courtesan) and an anguissette.
At the same time, Carey has avoided turning the D'Angeline "Night Court" (servants of Naamah who dedicate themselves to satisfying patrons along the lines of various themed Houses) into a sex trade predicated on the exploitation of women. Indeed, she makes it very apparent throughout the story that both women and men enter the service of Naamah. Similarly, those in the service of Naamah will routinely take both male and female patrons, regardless of their own gender (I'm tempted to label this pansexuality, but I'm not an expert, so I won't). The great thing about epic fantasy, particularly fantasy set in an alternate world, is that authors can construct social sexual identity without having to base that identity on current attitudes toward sexuality.
Carey's world is a very careful blend of slavery and succour, of prostitution and pleasure—servants of Naamah aren't mere whores, but very high class individuals dedicated to what D'Angelines literally consider a holy occupation. Phèdre, even after she "makes her marque", is closer to being a willing slave than any other servant of Naamah in Terre D'Ange. "Cursed" (as she comes to see it) with Kushiel's Dart as she is, even now that she's a free woman—and a countess too—there will always be a part of her that won't just enjoy submitting; it'll desire it. This darkness lurking beneath the surface of the protagonist is fascinating and disturbing at the same time.
I very much enjoyed Kushiel's Dart. After waiting so long to read it and hearing so many good things about it (it's got a blurb on the cover from Robert Jordan for heaven's sake!), I really wanted to give it five stars. However, I can't do that—it did have flaws that I felt were significant enough to reduce its standing to only four stars. In places it was too heavy in exposition, slowing the narrative to a trickle. I managed to portage over those moments and get to the other side—which often proved even more interesting and intense than the previous chapters!
Definitely something any epic fantasy fan needs to read.
- Mass Market Paperback, 687 pages
- Tor, 2002
Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.
Screw magic. Give me some political fantasy any day, and I'm a happy reader.
I liked Kushiel's Dart. I'm not sure if there's a definite quality improvement or if I'm going too easy on this one, but I loved Kushiel's Chosen.
The Kushiel's Legacy series takes place in a sort of Fantasy Counterpart Culture world where it's Europe, only not. From this starting point, Jacqueline Carey creates a world that, while somewhat similar to our own, nevertheless has unique societies and politics. As she crisscrosses Europe—sorry, Europa—in search of the escaped traitor, Melisande Shahirizai, Phèdre tours many of these societies and inevitably gets involved in her politics. The combination of her stunning beauty, sexual promiscuity, and savvy spy skills can be very persuasive.
Indeed, it's quite possible to label Phèdre a Mary Sue and call it day. That doesn't do justice to Carey's intricate plotting though. Rather, I love Kushiel's Chosen because it teeters on the brink of being contrived; Phèdre balances just on the precipice of Mary Sue-dom. All these people Phèdre encounter tend to help her, for one or more of the three aforementioned character traits she possesses. To put it in perspective: upon escaping from an inescapable island prison (and nearly drowning), Phèdre soon rebuilds her power base, befriending in the process not one but two other nations, and returns to Venice—sorry, La Serenissima—to stop the assassination of her Queen.
What saves the book, and Phèdre, is the difficulty level at which Carey has set her game. Despite her ever-ready allies, despite her shrewdness and knowledge of political intrigue, Phèdre spends most of the book suffering failure after failure. It's like Carey has constructed a giant locked room mystery (where the room is the size of a continent), and Phèdre has interrogated all of the witnesses and suspects, but she still guesses wrongly. Meanwhile, I guessed where Melisande was hiding long before the big reveal (and I never solve those mysteries). But does this make the book bad? On the contrary, it's very smart. By choosing it to do this way, Carey divides the book into two parts that are almost self-contained narratives in themselves, with introduction, rising action, climax, and denouement.
In the first half of Kushiel's Chosen, we're re-introduced to Phèdre, Terre d'Ange, and being a Servant of Namaah. The main focus is on discovering how Melisande escaped custody at the end of Kushiel's Dart (and hence, where she has gone to ground). To this end, we're immersed in the court life in the City of Elua, with Phèdre unsure of who is trustworthy, since someone supposedly beyond reproach had to help Melisande escape. After staging a falling out with Queen Ysandre and relocating to La Serenissima, Phèdre soon discovers where Melisande is hiding. But it's too late, and she's imprisoned in an inescapable fortress on an island.
The second half features Phèdre's lucky escape, several brushes with death, and the befriending and bedding of a pirate. The mystery is over, and now it's all about rebuilding her power base so Phèdre can return to La Serenissima in time to prevent Ysandre's assassination. It's pretty obvious that Phèdre will succeed at this one task, even if she has failed at everything else, so the source of the drama comes from everyone around Phèdre. Who lives and who dies? What's Melisande's fate? More importantly, how do the machinations of a D'Angeline traitor affect Serenissiman politics? Carey constantly impresses me with her ability to effortless manage so many characters. The universe of Kushiel's Legacy is very heavily populated, but not so much so that it's Name Soup.
Kushiel's Chosen is sort of a political/spy thriller set in a fantasy world, albeit only in the sense that slow-moving historical fiction can be a thriller (as the events take place over the course of a year). It's weakest in its characterization, especially with Phèdre and Joscelin's relationship, which is far too prolonged. (Also, of all the exposition that Carey skips in the second book, she doesn't re-explain the nature of the Cassilines, something I had forgotten in the year that managed to elapse between books.)
By far, the most intriguing relationship is the one between Phèdre and Melisande. They are each other's nemesis on both an intellectual and visceral level. Phèdre and I both admire Melisande's aptitude at the game of thrones. She is a delightfully crafty enemy and well a match for Phèdre—in more ways than one, as Phèdre considers Melisande delicious as well as delightful. If her existence as the world's only anguissette isn't conflicting enough, her attraction to Melisande is inconvenient and almost deadly. At first, I didn't entirely understand this aspect of their relationship—it's obvious, after all, that Phèdre would never betray Ysandre and join the dark side.
But it's more than just mere attraction. Phèdre is a lonely heroine, and has been from the start of the series. After the deaths of Alcuin and Anafiel and the loss of Hyacinthe in Kushiel's Dart, Phèdre is more alone than ever. This situation only escalates throughout Kushiel's Chosen as Phèdre alienates Joscelin and loses some of her companions. Moreover, wherever she goes and whatever she accomplishes, she is always still "the anguissette," identified sometimes more by myth than her own personality. (The fact that she saves the kingdom and is commended by Ysandre for this at the end of the book doesn't exactly help.)
As her nemesis, Melisande is a part of Phèdre's identity. She beat Phèdre in the first halves of both books. Although Phèdre was ultimately victorious (twice), Melisande promises that it's not game over. Similarly, Melisande is the only patron of Phèdre's who ever extracted the safe word—sorry, signale—during a sexual exploit. I would go so far as to say that Melisande is the single person who best understands Phèdre, both as an anguissette and as spy—she certainly understands Phèdre better than Phèdre's love, Joscelin. At the best of times he's clueless about the complications of Phèdre's commitments to Namaah's service; at the worst of times he's openly disdainful.
And so, Kushiel's Chosen takes the best aspects of Kushiel's Dart and amplifies them, grafting on a better plot with more sinister intrigue and a stellar cast of supporting characters. More than just court drama (although Phèdre never hesitates to give us a play-by-play of what she's wearing), Kushiel's Chosen is the intimate dance between two like minds conducted with an entire continent as their battlefield. Phèdre and Melisande face off in a conflict that is both deeply political and deeply personal. In so doing, Carey captures the breadth of human expression writ large and writ small.
Returning to Terre D'Ange and Phèdre's Europe—sorry, Europa—was truly a pleasure. I recommended Kushiel's Dart to fans of epic fantasy; now I'll go one step further and say that even straight up historical fiction fans can find enjoyment here. Carey's skill as a writer is something that transcends genre, and while Kushiel's Chosen is fantasy in name, it is fantastic by nature.
- Mass Market Paperback, 750 pages
- Tor, 2003
Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.
Soon after my return to Terre d'Ange in Kushiel's Chosen, I'm back for round three: Kushiel's Avatar. Let's do this.
We begin "ten years later…" with a recap of the previous two books, reminding us who this Phèdre chick is and why we care. Specifically, we recall the contribution of Hyacinthe, a Romani—sorry, Tsingano—prince and lifelong friend of Phèdre. Way back in Kushiel's Dart (remember that? remember?), Hyacinthe saved Phèdre from having to take the place of the cursed Master of the Straits. Ever since then, Phèdre has been scouring all the Yeshuite lore she can lay hands on for a way of breaking the curse. That is, when she isn't busy traipsing around the continent making alliances, smoking out traitors, and—let us not forget—serving Namaah. This woman gets things done.
Phèdre gets a dubious break in her search when she's contacted by aforementioned smoked-out traitor, Melisande Shahrizai. Melisande's son, Imriel, who is third-in-line for the throne of Terre D'Ange, has gone missing. Phèdre, who has serious issues with Melisande, ends up promising to find Imriel. The fact that she's been searching for him for ten years with no success doesn't really recommend her for this job. But apparently, Melisande thinks that if anyone can find Imriel when she can't, it's the one woman whom she's outsmarted for ten years by hiding her son. This bizarre, D'Angeline logic doesn't appeal to me, but it certainly drives the plot forward.
So Phèdre and Joscelin get involved in all sorts of African adventures, and along the way, Phèdre picks up a handy Name of God that frees Hyacinthe. And in the ten years since the last book, everyone's "beauty has deepened" (Carey uses that exact phrase to describe the ageing of both Phèdre and Melisande). Oh, and there's lots of violent sex. And Imriel is awesome. I think that about covers it.
From the somewhat flippant tone of this review, you might get the impression that I didn't find much to like about this book. Nothing could be further from the truth. I could spend 1200 words gushing about Carey's writing and worldbuilding, but I've already done that. So rather than repeat that performance, I'll just refer you to the prior review and save the space here for my criticism.
While Kushiel's Avatar contains all the ingredients I know and like about this series, the proportions are a bit off. What I loved about Kushiel's Chosen (and, to some extent, Kushiel's Dart) was the political intrigue. That sort of intrigue is almost non-existent here. Sure, Phèdre befriends a couple of countries on behalf of Terre d'Ange and overthrows another one, but that's, like, a normal afternoon for her. There's no challenge to it. The worst thing that happens is she sells herself into sexual slavery—and I'm not trying to belittle the emotional and psychological trauma of that experience, but on the political level, there's nothing going on here. I know a lot of people praise Kushiel's Avatar as the best book of the series (they may be correct) and as a fine book in its own right, but it's not exactly what I was hoping it would be.
Kushiel's Avatar is more successful on the personal level. Even then, however, a lot of Phèdre's struggle doesn't have the same gravity as it did in the first two books (which is odd, considering she's going after the Name of God here, which is the most "high stakes" you can get). Carey achieves a nice sense of dramatic symmetry by having Phèdre intentionally sell herself into slavery, recalling the time Melisande did it for her. But I never really feel like she's risking anything. She complains a lot about how hard it is to be an anguissette, the pain-bearer, Kushiel's Chosen … but her pain is transitory. In the previous book, Phèdre gambled big and lost big, her mistake costing her the lives of Fortun and Remy. Where are the mistakes Phèdre makes here?
Is it the "kidnapping" of Imriel and forcing his subsequent adoption, losing Ysandre's friendship in the process? Hardly. It's not like that particular rift will last long: we know they'll make up. So what about Joscelin? Does their time in Drujan drive them apart? Again, not by much and not for long. OK, but what about Hyacinthe? Surely with him free, there's a love triangle in the making, yes? Except that he has a girl waiting for him, and they're going off to Alba so he can continue being Master of the Straits, minus the curse. It's happily-ever-after all around.
Which is fine: happy endings have their place, and far be it from me to insist on tragedy. Nevertheless, Kushiel's Avatar lacks that fragile fallibility that made Phèdre so appealing in the first two books. The only event that seems to cost Phèdre anything is the death of the Mahrkagir (and the lives of the guards and women of the zenana who aided in the coup). She rightly resolves to remember that incident, not only for the allies who gave their lives for her, but for her own kill as well. Phèdre pitied the Mahrkagir as much as he loved her, and in her grief we see the nature of her heroism.
Phèdre, more than anyone, sees people for everything they are, not just the most obvious things. It's why she loves Melisande, much to everyone else's concern, and why she insists that Imriel be left free to choose whether to continue a relationship with his mother. Phèdre insists on both sides of a story, not just the convenient side. It's that determination to do what's right, not merely convenient or comfortable, that makes her such a forceful character.
Oh look, I'm gushing. What can I say? Although I feel like Kushiel's Avatar doesn't replicate the high stakes—political and personal—of Kushiel's Chosen, it's still a good read.
- Mass Market Paperback, 944 pages
- Warner Books, 2006
Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.
So you wrote a highly-successful trilogy. Congratulations! What now? Well, you could write a sequel trilogy: new narrator, same old world and intrigue. Some writers want to milk the cash cow for all it's worth. Other writers, like Jacqueline Carey, create worlds compelling enough to justify returning to them time and again. Sinking into Kushiel's Scion is like having an old friend come to visit: all the things that you remember are there, but time has passed, and with it has come change. So you get to know each other again, laugh over old jokes, and share new ones.
Imriel is really the only logical choice for narrator of this trilogy. He belongs to the next generation, and although he is third-in-line to the throne of Terre d'Ange, he is first-in-line to inherit the political turmoil set in motion by his exiled mother, Melisande. It's fitting from a dramatic perspective as well, for Imriel is Phèdre's adopted son, a successor of sorts for her. The son of the antagonist of the previous trilogy is the protagonist of the new trilogy, and his first order of business is related to exactly that issue: who the hell is Imriel de la Courcel, and is he good?
I kept on waiting for something to happen in this book. At each turn I expected someone—Imriel—to get kidnapped or beaten or framed for a crime. That last one sort of happens, and it is a minor if important event. I was looking for something big, something that would incite action and drive the rest of the plot, much like Imriel's kidnapping drives the plot of Kushiel's Avatar. That kind of plot bomb is absent from Kushiel's Scion. Most of the book covers the span of years prior to Imriel's coming-of-age, at which point he leaves for the university at Tiberium. Then, in the second movement, if you will, we get some action that influences Imriel's outlook, prompting him to return to the City of Elua for the book's recapitulation.
Now I realize I was doing what many other reviewers have done, which is compare Kushiel's Scion to Kushiel's Avatar. I think it's natural to want to compare two consecutive books in a series, and from the perspective of writing quality it's a valid comparison to make. Nevertheless, Kushiel's Avatar is the concluding volume in a trilogy, and as such its plot is constructed differently from Kushiel's Scion, which is the beginning of a trilogy. It's far more apt to compare this book with that other beginning, Kushiel's Dart. Indeed, then we see the similarities emerge.
As Kushiel's Dart does with Phèdre, this book quickly covers a number of years during Imriel's youth. Imriel is of noble birth, but both our narrators are outsiders to nobility, for he was raised as an orphan and a goatherd. Moreover, both of them have psychic burdens they will bear for the rest of their lives: Phèdre, of course, is Kushiel's chosen; Imriel has Daršanga, as well as the shadow of his mother's betrayal hanging over his deeds. Kushiel's Dart is Phèdre's coming-of-age novel, the story of how she comes to terms with who she is and ends up embracing a life into which she has been manipulated by Anafiel and Melisande. Likewise, Kushiel's Scion is Imriel's story of growing up. He is part of the Courcel family yet not a part, part of the Shahrizai family yet not a part. Restless from this sense of not belonging, he eventually strikes off beyond Terre d'Ange to seek some sense of direction. It's not adversity that Imriel needs; it's reassurance that he can be good, that he is not a slave to fate.
As far as the change in narrators goes, I think they're really interchangeable. Phèdre was a great narrator, and so is Imriel, because they're both Carey narrating with a single voice, one which uses a somewhat archaic, stilted vocabulary and syntax. I don't mean to say that they are the same person, and if you replaced Imriel with Phèdre, you'd definitely have a very different story. Yet the style of narration remains the same, which is both reassuring and a little disappointing.
Also much the same are the politics. I love the politics in this series. Carey achieves the proper balance between national interests, like the Alban succession issue, and the conspiracies among families and houses, like Bernadette de Trevalion's plot to murder Imriel. One of the reasons I find historical fiction so fascinating is its ability to portray that dynamic between the massive national conflicts and the smaller, personal conflicts that drive individuals. Epic fantasy can accomplish the same thing, and Carey is an excellent example of this. Ysandre may trust Imriel, love Imriel as her cousing; but as the queen, she has certain obligations. Obtaining justice is not as simple as accusing the guilty party and presenting evidence, not when such accusations might breed more distrust and discontent. As he matures, Imriel recognizes that this is part of being nobility. Instead of choosing to reveal Bernadette's plot, he blackmails her into secrecy in an attempt to prevent future blood feuds.
If anything, I wish there had been more politics. Most of the intrigue centres around the Unseen Guild, a secret society that manipulates events in Europa for its own purposes. This is the society that taught Anafiel Delaunay the ways of espionage. Imriel encounters the Guild in Tiberium, personified as Claudia Fulvia, wife of a Roman senator. They are just as interested in him as he is in them: having a Crown Prince of Terre d'Ange, someone who is third-in-line to the throne, in their organization would be incredibly beneficial. Imriel stumbles upon the Unseen Guild while trying to discover who taught Anafiel. Soon, however, he becomes obsessed with learning more about the Guild and their relationship to his exiled mother.
Honestly, the problem with having the Guild as adversaries (I'm deliberately avoiding the less neutral term of "antagonist") is that they're so damn shadowy. Aside from Claudia, and perhaps Canis, we don't knowingly meet any other Guild members. As a rule, I am suspicious about enemies who operate behind the scenes—they smack of plot device. To Carey's credit, the Guild is not the one that rides to Imriel's rescue when Lucca comes under siege. Still, they are far from a compelling addition to the canon.
As the first book in a trilogy, Kushiel's Scion captures the introductory flavour of Kushiel's Dart. Unfortunately, it lacks a big central conflict. Even the latter book has one in the form of the Skaldian invasion. The siege of Lucca is a major turning point in Imriel's life, but it lacks the gravity of previous events in the Kushiel series, where every book, including the first one, left Europa altered in some fundamental way. So in that sense, Carey did not meet the standards she set in her previous trilogy. But I'm not saying it's bad, and I'd venture that it's something more than good. In terms of characterization, which is a parameter I rank highly (often even higher than plot), this is a great book. For those who have read the first trilogy and are aching to return to Terre d'Ange, I don't think you'll be disappointed. I know, I miss Phèdre too. But every generation must eventually cede new adventures to the next one, and it's Imriel's time now.
- Mass Market Paperback, 880 pages
- Grand Central, 2007
Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.
This is the first book in the series since Kushiel's Dart that I would really classify as romance. There have been romantic subplots in the interim, but nothing like the romance between Phèdre and Joscelin from the first book. Jacqueline Carey is trying to rebottle that lightning in Kushiel's Justice. It doesn't quite work, but there are some good secondary effects that, in the end, make this book better than Kushiel's Scion.
It's your classic love triangle: Imriel loves Sidonie, who loves him back. But Imriel is the son of a traitor, so it would not do for their affair to become public. Also, Imriel has bartered himself away to marry a Cruithne woman, Dorelei, and beget heirs to the Alban throne. Got that? Good.
The dilemma, then, is whether Imriel remains in Alba with Dorelei or leaves—with or without impregnating her—and tries to make things work with Sidonie in Terre d'Ange. To further complicate matters, an ancient Alban tribe has placed a curse on Imriel, because they have visions that predict his son by Dorelei will bring a D'Angeline army to Alba and conquer. That doesn't put Imriel in a good mood.
The outcome isn't (or shouldn't be) surprising. After all, it's Sidonie on the cover, not Dorelei, so true love has to win in the end. I have to admit, I did not foresee Dorelei's death—which goes to show how little romance I read—but it's certainly an expedient way of reducing the love triangle to a love line. With Dorelei dead, Imriel is a widower, and he can absolve himself of any guilt over the matter by avenging her death. He cashes in on this future absolution a bit early when he reunites with Sidonie: at every meeting, they tend to have intense and passionate sex. This does put Imriel in a good mood.
Let's review: after his pregnant wife is killed, one of the first things on his list, above even "getting better" from his own wounds, is to have sex with the woman he was thinking about ever since he got married. Excuses and rationalizations abound: he just can't help himself, they fit so well together, Dorelei would have wanted him to be happy … but it just feels cold. I was really invested in the emotional significance of Dorelei and Imriel's relationship: she was a good woman, and he was beginning to envision a life for himself that, if not passionate, was at least contenting. By resuming his affair with Sidonie so quickly, Imriel does nothing but remind me that Dorelei's only purpose was to be an obstacle between him and his princess. It cheapens, for me, Dorelei as a person, and does nothing to further my enjoyment of Imriel and Sidonie's happiness (which I did enjoy).
I'm being glib here, and to be fair, Imriel does spend a large proportion of this book moping about one thing or another. Before Dorelei's death, he moped about Sidonie and the Alban curse subplot. After Dorelei's death, he moped about Sidonie and how he failed Dorelei. And the rest of the book following his brief reunion with Sidonie is devoted to his quest for revenge. So don't get the impression that his marriage to Dorelei is a brief episode that then gets shunted aside. (Dorelei suffers from this fate.)
I could almost overlook these flaws, because Kushiel's Justice finally sees a return to Alba. Of all the alterna-Europe countries in Carey's world, Alba is the most fascinating. Thanks to the Master of the Straits, it remains isolated after the fall of the Roman—sorry, Tiberian—Empire. So no Angles, Saxons, or Jutes get to invade. It's a very different Alba from the invasion-prone British Isles we grow up learning about.
But Carey squanders this opportunity with the curse. The Maghuin Dhonn are the worst antagonists we've yet to encounter in this series. They are worse, by far, than the Unseen Guild, although the two groups share a predilection for shadowy manipulation. And do not get me started about Morwen. She and Berlik partake of the most tired and clichéd excuses for their actions: they had no choice, they saw what they saw, they would do it differently if they had seen another way. I hate fatalistic villains who believe they're carrying some sort of burden placed upon them by the future. They're so smug in a self-righteous way, their voices tinged with a haughty sort of sadness over the protagonist's inability to see their side of the story. All too often, as is the case here, such fatalism is just a smokescreen to disguise a lack of deeper characterization. The Maghuin Dhonn are a pitiful excuse for a plot device to set up Dorelei's death, which itself is a plot device to reunite Sidonie and Imriel and let him get his vengeance on.
Judging from all this vitriol, it seems unlikely that I could prefer Kushiel's Justice to Imriel's first adventure. Yet, perhaps paradoxically, this still emerges the better book. Its pacing is much better, and even if the plot is a tangled, mangled mess of illogical intrigue, it still has better characterization. Prior to her death, Dorelei went from unknown princess bride to a sweet, caring wife determined to make the best of her political marriage. Imriel doesn't deserve her. And if Carey surprised me with anything in this book, she did so with Maslin de Lombelon. I was really expecting Maslin to be an irrational foe of Imriel's long after he and Sidonie get together. Sure enough, he vehemently objects to Imriel's association with her at every turn—then he shows up and helps Imriel effect an escape from Vralia! Carey keeps it realistic, and Maslin honestly tells Imriel that he will always hate Imriel a bit—but they aren't enemies any more. That was a very interesting and unexpected development; I wonder of the extent to which Maslin will be an ally when Imriel and Sidonie resolve the political ramifications of their relationship in the next book.
I am looking forward to finishing this trilogy. If you desire a blanket statement, then look to those people who pronounce the first trilogy superior to this one. They are correct. There are plenty of things to enjoy about Imriel's trilogy, especially in Kushiel's Justice. But the plot is just so heavy-handed, forcing the characters, particularly the antagonists, to act out of expediency instead of natural motivations. This is a book that talks the talk but doesn't walk the walk, at least not when it comes to conflict. The romantic subplot, if that's more your area of interest, is slightly better, although it doesn't capitalize on the depth Carey is perfectly capable of putting into her characters. Kushiel's Justice is OK, maybe even good, but it seems blatantly obvious that it could have been so much better.
- Mass Market Paperback, 796 pages
- Grand Central, 2008
Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.
We have arrived at the end of a second trilogy, and I'm feeling regret—but not in a good way. Kushiel's Mercy at first seems like everything we need to send Imriel and Sidonie out in style. This is the culmination of Imriel's adventures, his final chance to sever himself from the taint of traitor's blood. And it's the final chapter in a slow, simmering love story.
Going into Kushiel's Mercy, Carey has set up two expectations. Firstly, we're going to see the resolution of Sidonie and Imriel's declaration of love. Secondly, Imriel will have to find his mother and bring her back to Terre d'Ange for execution. We knew he would have to do this ever since Melisande went missing back in Kushiel's Scion, and he acknowledges it just before Ysandre sets him the task. This is a difficult mission, and a perfect one with which to conclude Imriel's trilogy. It's so damn perfect, in fact, that I totally didn't see the twist coming; I was just so intent on contemplating the search for Melisande.
The twist is brilliant. Well, OK, I'm not a big fan of how Carey makes all her characters, including Phèdre and Joscelin, carry a big aggressive Idiot Ball for the entire novel. And the way Carey sets up the stakes, it's pretty obvious that Imriel is going to emerge the hero of Terre d'Ange, avert civil war, and dispel any notion that he could ever be the traitor his mother is. So this brilliant twist sows the seeds of its own mediocrity. Let us leave that aside, for the moment, and instead look at some of the better consequences of Carey's plotting.
The only way for Imriel to get close enough to the resident wizardy bad guy is to change his face. But wizards are good at detecting that sort of magic, so the transformation has to be good enough to fool the wizard—so good that it will fool Imriel as well. And this means that for the first time ever we see a shift in narrative perspective; as Imriel takes on the identity of Leander Maignard, so too does his narration. His voice changes noticeably, acquiring the haughty, dismissive, and enthusiastic attitude of Leander and dropping a lot of Imriel's moodiness. It is, in a way, quite refreshing. And it's fun, too, to see Imriel's new personality fall for Sidonie all over again.
But there's only so much of Imriel-as-Leander we can take before we need Imriel again. My patience was beginning to wear thin just as Carey instigated his restoration. When it happened, I remember looking at how much of the book was left and thinking, "Now what?" I was sceptical that there was enough story left to cover nearly 400 pages. In the end, Carey makes a good effort at it, but Kushiel's Mercy is a very messy book with a very messy plot.
Astegal, the Carthaginian general who initiates the mind-altering, princess-kidnapping plot, is an idiot. He's supposed to be some kind of military genius, but it seems like he failed to do the research when it comes to Terre d'Ange. Firstly, he chose to make an enemy of Imriel. This is a man who went halfway across the continent, nearly freezing to death in the process, to avenge his slain wife. This is a man raised by a woman who carries in her head the Name of God. This is a man who's on a first-name basis with the Master of the Straits. You do not mess with Imriel de la Courcel (unless you're Sidonie). Of course, villains always think they have the super-special plan that will finally dispatch the hero, so Astegal's audacity is justifiable in this sense.
His second mistake is less understandable. Having freed Sidonie of the enchantment enamouring her with Astegal, Imriel gets around to asking if she's pregnant with Astegal's child:
"No," Sidonie smiled wryly. "I married Astegal in Carthage. The rites were all Carthaginian. There was no invocation beseeching Eisheth for fertility." Her expression turned quizzical. "And I never said a word about it. I must have known, somewhere deep inside me, that I didn't love him."
So let me get this straight, Astegal: you go to all this trouble of working a spell that convinces everyone in the City of Elua, including Sidonie, that you and Sidonie are in love. You and your wizard ally have obviously put considerable thought and preparation into this plan. And having executed it successfully, you proceed to marry Sidonie and try to impregnate her—quite vigorously, she says. Yet at no point do you bother to learn or recall that D'Angeline women, and only D'Angeline women, can only become pregnant by first saying a prayer to their fertility goddess.
That, my good evil general, is a very big detail to overlook. If you still had a head, I would advise you to smack it right now. But Imriel and Sidonie took that from you, because you suck at your job.
What can I say? I like antagonists who present a credible threat, and Astegal never does. Even when it's a given that the hero will succeed, it's still possible to make the reader worry about the price involved. Carey does this in Kushiel's Chosen, where Phèdre meets with failure after failure, only succeeding near the very end, with a lot of help. Imriel faces no such difficulties. All he has to do is blunder forward through the story, trusting that the plot will take him to a successful conclusion.
While I'm being curmudgeonly, let me comment on the absurd amount of sex in Kushiel's Mercy. I haven't discussed the sexuality in this series much since Kushiel's Dart. It's a complex issue that would make a great paper for some English student. The central precept of D'Angeline society is "Love as thou wilt." This applies not only to selection of sexual partners but to the practice of sex itself. Sidonie and Imriel spend the first part of Kushiel's Mercy exploring BDSM, which is more mainstream in D'Angeline society than it is in ours. It's only natural that Imriel and Sidonie have some intense reunion sex after he rescues her from Astegal's enchantment. But it seems like these two drop their clothes every few pages, dallying often enough that their encounters tax even Carey's ability to vary her descriptions.
On a deeper level, I'm having a hard time deciding how much of the sexuality in this series is just an excuse to write sex scenes. The D'Angeline attitude toward sex may seem more permissive, but Carey shows us only a narrow slice of that world. BDSM was also Phèdre's thing; making it Sidonie and Imriel's thing makes me wonder if this is more about Carey's preferences for writing sex scenes than it is any thematic statement about sexuality. Another review of Kushiel's Justice expressed disappointment that the series hasn't featured gay male characters. There are allusions to such relationships, but unlike Phèdre's liaisons with Melisande and Nicola, we have yet to see it explicitly depicted. On the surface, it appears that Carey is conforming to the double standard that girl-on-girl is hot but guy-on-guy is not. However, it's important to remember that Imriel has legitimate baggage from his time in Daršanga; some of his experiences have left him with terrible memories associated with having sex with men. So I was pleasantly surprised to see Carey write a sex scene for Imriel-as-Leander and another man. So maybe this elision is not deliberate on Carey's part. Nevertheless, the seemingly-unrestricted sexuality of this series is actually much narrower than it initially appears.
We have come to the end of the second trilogy of this series. Just as Imriel has come of age beneath the shadow of his mother's deeds, this trilogy will forever be judged against the first one. And the problem with that comparison is that the two trilogies really are very similar. Rather than depart from the formula of the first three books, Imriel's adventures continue along lines similar to those of Phèdre, albeit with less Earth-shattering consequences. But no one has ever succeeded by lowering the stakes from previous stories! This trilogy, and Kushiel's Mercy, fails to break new ground or go to the next level, whether it's in the sex, the relationships, or the political intrigue that snares these characters at every turn. Kushiel's Mercy particularly is very messy, with antagonists who aren't the least bit threatening and a plot sabotaged by the sappy romance between Sidonie and Imriel. I think it's perfectly possible to read this book and thoroughly enjoy it (if you're sleep-walking through it), but this is not the conclusion to a trilogy that I was expecting.