I hesitated reading Kushiel's Dart for a number of years for that most superficial of reasons: the cover art. Kushiel's Dart looked like little more than a romance novel wrapped in the swaddling of fantasy. This novel, however, has received a fair amount of critical acclaim and good buzz has popped up in some of the online venues I keep an eye on. So, it is with a mild amount of trepidation which I opened the cover.
The story begins early on in the life of Phedre, a young girl who would soon to be given over to the care of the Night Court, a group of professional courtesans. After spending several years trained at the Night Court she is adopted, or better yet, purchased by a man named Delaunay. Delaunay purchased Phedre's "marque", that which Phedre will need to earn back before she has her complete freedom again. She is not a slave, but she is owned. Delaunay has grander plans than just using Phedre as a source of income. Phedre is to be trained to look, listen, and think, to work as something of a spy for Delaunay has she goes on her assignations with the elite of Terre d'Ange.
The first hundred pages or so cover Phedre's training, her friendship with a gypsy boy named Hyacinthe, and her training by Delaunay. Jacqueline Carey is setting the stage for what is to come and to prepare Phedre and the reader for the rest of the novel. It would be very easy, however, to close the book any time during the first hundred pages in frustration because while there is quite a bit going on, there is the feeling that nothing actually happened.
The second hundred pages or so solve this problem as Phedre is permitted to start earning her marquee back and starts working as a courtesan for Delaunay. These second hundred pages can veer, at times, to soft core pornography. There is a good deal of sex, and because of the nature of Phedre's gift (she is an anguissette, touched by the god Kushiel, which is of a benefit to her "work" and allows her pleasure in pain), the sex is frequently violent. Carey toes a very fine line in showing the reader the nature of Phedre's work without going into too explicit detail. There are several instances, though, where Carey shows us more than the others so we better know just how violent and sexual things are for Phedre and just how much pleasure she gets from the pain.
This is only the beginning of the story, though. There are still five hundred more pages of "action" and plot. When the intrigue which Delauney has introduced Phedre to but never quite gave her all of the details about comes full circle to threaten Delaunay and Phedre's life, Phedre must choose survival over pride and expedience over her own desires and wishes. Phedre must use all of the skills at her disposal, intellectual and physical, to survive and protect Terre d'Ange from treachery internal and threats external.
Kushiel's Dart was a pleasant surprise. The first person narration from Phedre was very effective as Carey perfectly captures the voice of the character and when Phedre declines to graphically explain certain events it does not harm the story, but rather gives the story shading and perspective from the narrating character. Carey is, perhaps, a bit long winded and spends a bit too much time having Phedre dealing with whatever her current situation is. It is all appropriate for the story, but Kushiel's Dart is also a 700 page doorstop of a novel and there is some fat in the novel which could well have been trimmed. In particular, the first two hundred pages had extraneous text, though Carey does a very good job in making reference later to what seemed at first to be padding. This is to say that while Kushiel's Dart is very much on the wordy side, Jacqueline Carey makes even unimportant events early on become important later in the novel. Because of this, it is difficult to say exactly what should have been trimmed, but 700 pages is still a bit much to ask for from the reader for a first novel.
With all of that said, Carey does an excellent job making Phedre a believable character and the political intrigue and motivations credible. Phedre's world feels like a place that could possibly exist. As the novel progresses, Phedre still uses the physical tools she has at her disposal (her body), but Carey no longer goes into great detail in what goes on between the sheets. This is to Carey's and the novel's benefit because had the sex not taken a back seat later in the novel Kushiel's Dart would have been little more than a soft core novel with some fantasy elements (i.e. more suited to be shelved in the romance section than fantasy).
Kushiel's Dart far exceeded my expectations and while I feel no inclination to rush out and find a copy of the next book, Kushiel's Chosen (another 700 page doorstop), I did enjoy the time spent in Terre d'Ange and will likely return for another visit to the intrigue of Phedre's world.