Original Pub. Date: 2001
Today's bad fantasy fun comes straight from the smallest box of books in my house: the reject box headed for resale. Kushiel's Dart is a 901-page* excuse for a generally unimaginative series of S&M sex scenes, scattered throughout far, far too many words purporting to comprise a complex spy thriller/royal court plot. To put it more simply: you get ten pages of people getting tied up naked for every hundred pages of dull, melodramatic misunderstanding of Renaissance politics.
And all those hundreds of pages, let me hasten to emphasize, really only exist so that Kushiel's Dart and its many overwrought sequels can be shelved under science fiction/fantasy rather than erotica.
The heroine of these books is a high-class prostitute in a country (loosely based on France, if France were an even wussier place than it really is -- do try to imagine that if you possibly can) whose entire ethos comes from the fatuous pronouncement of a legendary angel: "Love as thou wilt." Wow, man, like, that's so deep, let's all just come together, shall we? Literally or figuratively, your choice.
If that's not already enough to make you vomit, this same heroine is also perfectly beautiful and lovable and delicate, yet strong yet honorable yet fragile, and yet, because of a magical curse/blessing that causes a little red dot in the white of her eye, she can also only really enjoy sex when she's playing the submissive to someone's violent dom. That's about it as far as character development goes: Disney princess meets Vivid Video up-and-comer. So to speak.
Because of some stuff that really doesn't matter involving a queen and some spies -- or something -- our virtuous yet vixenish femme fatale finds herself at the mercy of an aristocrat who's a devotee of the patron angel of sadistic sex (this fantasy world just gets more and more appealing, doesn't it?). She also picks up with several other lovers, at least two of them messed-up young men who actually, sexy angels help them, fall in love with her. Then there's her capture by a barbarian obsessed with a sword-and-sorcery version of Cosmopolitan's Book of Awesome Sex Positions, which really adds the dash of sophistication Kushiel's Dart was missing.
Much as I try to resist sinking into a quagmire of feminist academic criticism, this is one occasion on which, sexy angels now please help us all, it's almost impossible. Here we have a female protagonist whose entire worth to society and to her friends is predicated on her inability not to orgasm when she's raped, humiliated, and degraded. It's not her fault, please keep in mind! This was ordained by a sexy angel of masochism, and so of course she's going to enjoy it.
And because this is just the way she is, she's excused from having any moral agency. The guy who's willing to fight to the death for her, whom she claims to love in return . . . weeeeel, you know, she may have cheated on him with eight guys with whips. But that's fine, you see, because she's
Sadly, I think the author was probably trying to make a point about sexual liberation, and how women can be worthy of love without being virginal and/or prudish. I agree. They can. However, that point of view depends on women having a choice about they way they express their sexuality, or don't. According to what I think Carey believes about the world, the patriarchy has historically taken away women's sexual agency and made them pawns in men's sexual games. Now, in this much-improved fantasy world, angels take away women's sexual agency so that they can be used as pawns in men's sexual games. Oh. Okay. Despite the bondage trappings, Kushiel's Dart has the same general ethos as a Harlequin Presents novel circa 1975.**
On top of this old-school romance-novel view of women's value, Carey has added an entirely contemporary problem: defining everyone, male or female, primarily by their sexuality. The heroine of Kushiel's Dart is a submissive royalist courtesan; her favorite boyfriend is sworn to celibacy, and also good with knives. The main villain is a dominatrix who's plotting to take over the world. And so on. The first, and in many cases the only, traits of the characters in this book are sexual. You have certainly, dear readers, met people who define themselves as "bisexual progressives" or "gay Republicans" or "lesbian Hispanic-Americans." In addition to being a cocktail-party bore of the first water, anyone whose first personal descriptor involves something he likes to do in bed is a tedious protagonist.
The result is a book so shallow, so lacking in any interest beyond the prurient, that it really ought to be shelved next to the works of the Marquis de Sade. His books, while equally dull, contain just slightly more rape.
Although it's really redundant, Kushiel's Dart has one more glaring weakness. Unlike the good Marquis, Carey uses a mismatched mish-mash of Christian, Jewish, and mythological linguistic references in an attempt to apply a patina of moral and literary legitimacy to the whole mess. The only "character development" that takes place does so through sex; the celibate fellow becomes less celibate, for example. And the author seems to be trying to convince the reader that having lots and lots of deviant sex with lots of people is actually an expression of these characters' spirituality, such as it is. Angels made them do it, if you know what I mean, which makes the doing of it somehow meaningful.
If an angel made a tree fall in the forest and kill a French prostitute, after which the tree was chopped up into pulp and made into a Jacqueline Carey novel, would that make the death of the tree a martyrdom? Ponder that at length, if you please, while I give this book a well-deserved one and a half stars and then fling it back into the discard box.
* In this paperback edition.
** If anyone would like further explication of this point, an email to me will elicit the full text of my college thesis, "Rereading the Romance: Masculinity in Transition." I strongly advise against sending such an email.