Kushiel’s Dart by Jacqueline Carey is a fantasy intrigue romance novel that strongly reminds you of George RR Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series (or vice versa). Though it is set in a world where the gods and magic are in the background, its deep characters, rich mythical back story and political plots will keep you pleasantly entertained without a doubt. Trust me — if you’ve read Game of Thrones you’ll still appreciate the less bloody intrigues of Kushiel’s Dart.
The Characters: All of the characters introduced in Kushiel’s Dart were well thought out and deep. Many were interesting. Lets start with the main characters.
You’ve got Phedre no Delauney, the main character and heroine who was born with the crimson mark of Kushiel’s Dart. This marked her as an outcast at first and her own mother sold her to one of The Night Court Houses (they’re a guild of legalized pleasure priests). At the beginning of the story she is trained by Anafiel Delauney in the ways of intrigue and spying along with her fellow student, Alcuin.
By the end of the story, Phedre is a hero who has undergone incredible trials to prevent the destruction of her homeland Terre D’Ange. She becomes the master (of espionage) where once she was a pupil. Seeing her reach that point is an amazing feeling because she’s tougher than she looks, while still coming off as very human, vulnerable and yielding.
Phedre is also accompanied by her Companion, Joscelin Verreuil, one of the Cassiline Brotherhood, sworn to protect their charges to the death. At first he seems like he’s a stuffy, vow-driven, one track-mind kind of character but he slowly evolves through the story’s trials into Phedre’s lover, guardian and … storyteller (if you read the novel you’ll understand). His growth is both natural and elegant, the way Jacqueline has written it and I was likewise impressed with him and Phedre for similar reasons.
Even the minor characters were well-fleshed out and amusing in their own way. From Anafiel, Alcuin, the people of Cereus House, Hyacinthe (the Prince of Travellers), the nobles like Gaspar and Duc L’Envers, Drustan mab Necthana, Grainne and Eaamon of the Dalriada, everyone’s personality and history was unique and memorable. There were few if any characters minor or major who were not memorable.
Even the villains like Skaldi warlord Waldemar Selig and genius mastermind Melisande Shahrizai were unforgettable. You respected them even if you didn’t out and out root for them.
The Plot: This was another impressive gem of Kushiel’s Dart. The intrigue of the Court of Terre D’Ange was laid out in full, in a way that was easy to understand and appreciate. There were the assassination plots and political intrigues of the Stregazza family that lead to the death of Phedre’s first protector Guy and the near-death of Alcuin.
There are the plots by Melisande Shahrizai that brought down certain nobles and rivals of the realm but serve only as the ground work of a much deeper plot to seize power over not just Terre D’Ange but all the countries around it. It feels sweeping and epic. I can see why some recommend Jacqueline’s Kushiel Legacy series as a good read after going through George RR Martin’s Game of Thrones series.
It has a similar feel without the extreme grittiness, death and betrayal. When, someone gets betrayed in the Game of Thrones it’s usually fatal in a very bloody fashion. Think of Robb Stark’s “Red Wedding” — you won’t find anything quite that severe in this book though you’ll be happy nonetheless.
The story concludes with hooks leading Phedre into the next book because politics is never over even when a war ends.
The World: Terre D’Ange is supposedly set in an alternative universe version of France. Elua and his angelic Companions who left God, traveled the world and eventually settled in the area that would be named Terre D’Ange. There they founded the various provinces, one for each of the Companions.
Jacqueline does a good job of describing the cultures of the different provinces and peoples. You’ve got the Yeshuites who are like the people Jesus was descended from in our world’s Christian religion. There are the Cruithne who remind me of the Celts or Gauls. You have the Akkadians who are like the Middle Eastern Arabs.
I also like how Jacqueline explaining how Terre D’Ange was so prosperous that it elevated pleasure and beauty to a high art. That’s why there’s the Night Court and their trained courtesans whose services are a prayer to the goddess Naamah. If you read it you’ll understand that Carey has woven a rich mythology behind much of the society that seeps out of the woodworks into your imagination.
The World: The fantasy aspect is muted and in the background. Well, more like the magical aspects. For example, Phedre’s mark means that she feels pain as pleasure, which gives her a way to spy on certain nobles and obtain information that few others can do.
It appears magical and divine. There isn’t a huge amount of explanation behind it. There are hints that it is a mark of Kushiel’s chosen weapon.
Since the people of Terre D’Ange are descended from Elua and his companions they have a trace of the divine and angels flowing in them. They are more beautiful on average than other humans. It kind of reminds me of fantasy elves in roleplaying games.
What you will not find is overt use of magic that marks high fantasy stories (the kind I grew up with). There are no wizards hurling fireballs. There are no evil sorcerers who raise the dead or strike down people with curses or use crystal balls.
Whatever magic is in this world is low-key and in the background. Like Kushiel’s dart or the inherent beauty of the Terre D’Ange. If there was high magic, it would make the intrigues in this story less attractive or less likely.
I think this is a good point for it, others might not find it their cup of tea.
There are no magical creatures, beasts or undead either. It’s straight up human versus human. If you liked Game of Thrones, this should be fine for you.
If you like fantasy that has ravening beasts and monsters like Wheel of Time, you won’t find anything like that here.
The Plot: The plot as it stands was entertaining. Certain twists were mysterious and unexpected. Some were predictable (or made to be that way).
On the whole, if you were expecting to be completely surprised at every turn you won’t be. You will however be curious or surprised enough that things are never that dull. The characters (and their actions) more than make up for any less-than-obvious plot surprises.
In all honesty I have little, if anything bad to say about Kushiel’s Dart on a serious level. Even the aspect of low magic isn’t really that serious unless you dislike fantasy-romance-intrigue stories with no wizards hurling spells or doing evil. The setting is rich with detail and myth, the characters are deep, human and evolving and the plot intrigue plus twists will keep you entertained.
If you’ve ever been a fan of The Game of Thrones and the Song of Ice and Fire series by George RR Martin then you should definitely read Kushiel’s Dart, the first book in the Kushiel’s Legacy series by Jacqueline Carey. There are quite a few decent similarities between them.