Phèdre lives in an alternate version of Europe, in which the country we know as France is called Terre d'Ange ("land of the angel"). Jacqueline Carey weaves elements of Christianity into the religion of Terre d'Ange, a place whose denizens are literally descended from angels, and where religion is part and parcel of their actions and culture.
As a child, Phèdre is left by her parents to be raised by one of the houses dedicated to Naamah (basically a sophisticated, faith-sanctioned brothel), where she is apprenticed in the ways of the Night Court. However, she has a flaw - a scarlet mote in one of her eyes - which makes her ineligible to be a full-fledged member of any of the houses. Until one day someone sees her "flaw" and understands what it truly is - she has been chosen by Kushiel, one of the deities of Terre d'Ange, and she bears his mark. And the course of Phèdre's life changes forever, as she is raised by an intelligent, powerful man with a hidden agenda, taught to be not only a courtesan with gifts unique in the world but to observe, remember, and think. Phèdre becomes a weapon in a hidden war of court politics and intrigue, and eventually finds herself in the possession of knowledge that could bring down the nation.
This paperback novel has more than 900 pages, and I've only scratched the surface of this rich, sensuous tale. The story starts out slowly, taking its sweet time to build Phèdre's intricate world, to introduce its vast cast of characters, including Phèdre's dearest friend, the irrepressible gypsy urchin Hyacinthe. In the beginning, the story may seem to meander, but the background is important, and seemingly irrelevant details told in passing resonate later on in the story. The tale is told from Phèdre's point of view, and the strength of her voice carries the narrative, relating an exciting, moving, riveting tale that gains momentum from chapter to chapter, making it a book that is dangerously difficult to put down.
Carey's writing is excellent, her dialog spot-on, her characterizations subtle, with depth and humor. And her descriptions are masterful. She creates such a vivid world that I found myself blinking dazedly at my surroundings whenever I (sadly) had to close the book, slightly surprised (and a bit disappointed) at finding myself in 21st-century Virginia. I read this book when it was first released, as well as the two sequels, and I think I enjoyed it even more this time around. There is explicit (but not gratuitous) sexuality, which may make some readers uncomfortable. I found it was deftly handled, skillfully woven into the mythology of Terre d'Ange in an unforgettable way. Phèdre is a truly lovable heroine, and I'm looking forward to rereading the next volume in this series. Fans of Anne Bishop's Black Jewels books would, I think, particularly enjoy this series.
Books in the Kushiel's Legacy series:
1. Kushiel's Dart
2. Kushiel's Chosen
3. Kushiel's Avatar
4. Kushiel's Scion
5. Kushiel's Justice
6. Kushiel's Mercy
7. Naamah's Kiss
8. Naamah's Curse
Kushiel's Dart (#1 in the Kushiel's Legacy series) by Jacqueline Carey (Tor, 2001)
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Adventures in Reading: "Kushiel's Dart far exceeded my expectations and while I feel no inclination to rush out and find a copy of the next book...I did enjoy the time spent in Terre d'Ange and will likely return for another visit to the intrigue of Phedre's world."
For Your Leisure: "It’s not a light read by any stretch, and I have to say I found it absolutely riveting."
Lusty Reader: "Basically reading Kushiel’s Dart was a mixture of hard work – getting my brain to think in terms of this world – but also so much enjoyment of the depth of characterization, thrilling action plot, and mythology in the story."