It is a world both like and unlike our own, where the death of Jesus on the cross happened, and his blood dripping on the earth, mingled with the tears of Mary Magdalene, engendered a child, the Blessed Elua.
Scorned by the followers of Jesus, Elua wandered the earth, and in time, thirteen of God's angels left Heaven to follow him. One of them, Naamah, slept with the King of Persis when he had imprisoned Elua in his dungeons. The Price of the night with her was Elua's freedom.
Everywhere Elua went, the people rejected him and his message. Until he eventually came to a land that was nameless, where the people accepted him and his companions with open arms. There, Elua and his companions settled, and quickly interbred with the people there. After some years, God saw that if Elua and his companions stayed there, their offspring would outbreed ordinary humans, so he appeared to Elua, and asked him if he and his angelic companions would come and stay with him in Heaven.
In response, Elua drew a dagger and cut his hand. Blood came, and Elua said. "Your heaven is a bloodless place, and I am not. Can you promise me a land like Terre D'Ange (for that was what the Kingdom was now called, "Land of Angels"), but only better and truer?" And God said, "There is no place like that." Quickly, Mother Earth spoke up, saying, "But we can make one." And so Elua and his companions travelled to the True Terre D'Ange, where the offspring of he and his companions go when they die, a reflection of love of the land they left behind.
Into Terre D'Ange is born a girl named Phèdre, the daughter of an Adept of Naamah and a minor merchant. Though her parents loved each other, they were not lucky in business, and to make money to recoup their losses and support themselves, they sold their daughter into servitude in the House of Cereus, and Cereus would have been glad to have her, except for the scsrlet mote in her left eye, that made her imperfect and unfit.
Until a nobleman named Anafiel Delaunay saw her and realized the rare gift she was, for Phèdre was marked by the angel Cassiel, born to know pain and pleasure as one. She was an Anguisette, the first born in Terre D'Ange in hundreds of years. He bought her from Cereus House and put her into his service, intending to make her a spy.
At first, she knew none of this. She was raised in the House until she was ten, and then brought to Delaunay's estate where she was raised with his other student, Alcuin, a young man with silver hair. They learn many tongues, and to truly see and remember. When they are 13, each dedicates themselves to Naamah's service- a sort of sacred prostitution.
For the most part, Phèdre lives a life unknown to others, except for one woman, Melisande Shahrizai, who comes from a line descended from Kushiel. Phèdre finds herself fascinated by the woman, who is both beautiful and has an aura of cruelty, something that she, as a anguisette, finds arousing. Melisande also knows Phèdre for an anguisette at first glance.
Melisande and Anafiel have a strange sort of relationship- both allies and rivals. Anafiel doesn't exactly trust her, but there is nothing to make them be actual enemies.
At sixteen, her virgin-price is bought by a man named Childeric D'Essoms. Anafiel has a plan in mind for both of his proteges, and each of them appeals to different sorts of people, with very different tastes- but all of whom have secrets that Anafiel Delaunay wants to know. His patron-gift to her allows her to start work on her marque, a tattoo that will eventually cover her back from the base of her spine to the back of her neck.
One night, Melisande Shahrizai buys the services of Phèdre for her lover, Badoin d'Trevalion. He isn't used to the sort of service that Phèdre provides, but gamely follows his lover's instructions to beat and use Phèdre.
But shortly thereafter, the House of Trevalion goes to trial for treason to the crown. Attending the trial with her mentor and Alcuin, she is impressed with the heir to the throne, seeing a core of steel beneath the fragile exterior that everyone sees. But Trevalion House suffers, with the mother and son are put to death for their plots to overthrow the throne, and the father and daughter are banished, while the uncle is absolved of guilt or knowledge of the plot. It turns out that he was undone by Melisande, who found proof of Badoin's mother Lyonette to betray the Royal family in collusion with the help of the Alba and place her son on the throne. Phèdre cannot get over the fact that her name is considered Bad Luck, and when she was young, Badoin kissed her for luck when she served in Cereus House, and that she slept with Badoin before his death.
Alcuin, meanwhile, has been pursued most feverishly by the man who bought his virgin price, Vitale Bouvarre. He has become so insistent that Alcuin see him again that Alcuin finally sets a high price on doing so- enough money to completely pay off his mark, and the names of those who helped in the murder of Isabel L'Envers. Bouvarre is desperate enough to do so, but afterwards, attempts to have Alcuin killed. Alcuin survives, thanks to his and Phèdre's bodyguard, an ex-servant of Cassiel named Guy.
Unfortunately, Guy, an expelled brother, dies in defending Alcuin, and Anafiel refuses to let the two of them go to further assignations unguarded. So he contacts the head of the Casseline order, an order of Celibate protectors- named after Cassiel, the only one of Elua's companions never to settle down and have children, remaining the perfect protector, and has a true Cassiel brother named Joscelin Verrueil brought as a protector for Phèdre.
Soon, Alcuin is free, and leaves Naamah's service. In fact, he only entered it for love of his master, Anafiel, making his service to her a blasphemy, but when his service is done, he asks of Naamah a pardon for his blasphemy. And soon, he and Anafiel Delaunay become lovers, something that Phèdre finds both happy and sad, because she loved her mentor as well and would have done anything for him. But she finds happiness in their happiness.
She and Joscelin don't get along- he's horrified by what she does and the sorts of services she performs, but eventually, he comes to realize that she has her honor, and can at least stomach being with her. On the longest night, Melisande buys her services for the entire night, and parades her around the ballroom in an outfit composed only of sheer gauze and diamonds, and with a lead around her throat with a diamond hanging from it. This causes Phèdre to lose herself so that she barely remembers what went on that night.
Afterwards, Melisande cuts the dress from her and uses flechettes on her, causing Phèdre to use her signale, a safe-word. In the aftermath, Phèdre accidentally reveals that Anafiel is waiting word from Quintillus Rousse, letting slip part of what he has been working on. Melisande's gift to her is the remains of her gown, letting her fill in the rest of her marque.
But before it can be completed, a sailor from Quintilus Rousse finds her with the message, which is, "When the Black Boar rules in Alba, Elder Brother will accede." Phèdre returns home to deliver the message and finds her mentor slaughtered and Alcuin dying. Alcuin reveals that Anafiel has been working to place Ysandre on the throne, and ally her with an Alban, Drustan Mab Necthana, who had fallen in love with her, and she with him on a state visit.
They go immediately to the palace, and Melisande offers them shelter when the King cannot see them right away, neither can Thelesis de Mornay. But Melisande drugs them and sells them into slavery in a brutal land named Skaldia, roughly analagous to Germany. There, she is initially sold into slavery in a small holding, but Joscelin is furious and fights incessantly.
It's up to Phèdre to keep him from fighting for no reason, and to keep him from being killed. She will need his help to escape and return to Terre D'Ange and reveal the plot of the traitor Melisande. But first, the leader of the steading puts them to work, joscelin among the dogs and later as a servant, and Phèdre in his bed. Soon, they are brought to a meeting of the leader of the Skaldic tribes, Waldemar Selig, where the man who owns her gives her to Waldemar Selig as a gift.
Phèdre, using her skills as a spy and a lover, keeps Selig occupied while finding out that he plans to invade Terre D'Ange, where he will rule over both countries with his fellow plotter and soon to be Queen, Melisande Shahrizai! Selig has in his possession a letter from Melisande outlining their plan, and Phèdre and Joscelin make plans to escape, but she knows she cannot take the letter with her, as it will alert both plotters to what she knows and cause them to change their plans.
She also listens to his meeting with his warlords, and finds out how and when they will invade Terre D'Ange. When he and his warlords leave on a hunt, Joscelin kills one of the White Brothers, special guards who wear White Wolfskins and are the strongest supporters of Waldemar Selig, as well as his bodyguards, and they steal food, wine, horses and fodder, saying Waldemar has called for Phèdre and a tent, to enjoy her in the outdoors overnight.
Their escape goes unnoticed at first, but soon Waldemar Selig has his men search for her. In the depths of the Skaldian winter, Phèdre and Joscelin evade most of their trackers, slay others, and make their way over the Mountains to Terre D'Ange. At one point, physically and emotionally exhausted, the two become lovers in a high mountain cave, which, as they only discover the morning after, once sheltered Elua and his companions.
But time is running out. Waldemar Selig will be invading Terre D'Ange as soon as the Winter snows melt from the high mountain passes, allowing his army passage. Phèdre and Joscelin must make their way to the City of Elua, persuade Ysandre Courcel of the truth of their tale, and bring Melisande Shahrizai to justice.
But it's not going to be that easy. Ysandre is persuaded by the evidence, but she needs the help of her love, Drustan Mab Necthana, who has been toppled from his throne of the Cruarch by his uncle, Maelcon. He and his loyal followers have taken shelter with two Lords of the Dalriada, Grainne and Eamon. To persuade them to invade and restore Drustan to the throne, Ysandre calls a council of War with the few people she can trust and makes Phèdre ambassador in her name.
But can Phèdre, a scholar, spy and sacred prostitute, fulfill her mission, and return to Terre D'Ange in time to save her home and see Ysandre restored to the throne? Or will the might of the assembled armies be too much even for her and the powers of an Anguisette?
Yes, I know this is a long review, but this is a very long book, over 900 pages, and I've barely even touched on some of the story, simply because it would take me days to finish this review. Kushiel's Dart was Jacqueline Carey's first novel, but you would never know it to read it. The writing is lush, sensual and lyrical, and although an awful lot of sex takes place in it, it's not handled like soft-core pornography or erotica. Carey does an awful lot of suggestion that allows you to paint a picture in your mind of what is going on, and then she draws back and moves on.
For a culture whose abiding rule is "Love as thou wilt", D'Angelline society is remarkably free and open. The idea of two men, two women, or even more combinations, is not looked down upon or demonized. So if you find the idea or talk of such to be disgusting, disquieting, unnatural or wrong, this is not a book you are going to enjoy- the same if you find games of S&M to be the same way. It's not that Phèdre can only get her jollies that way, but she enjoys the added spice that pain adds to the mix (something Joscelin doesn't understand until *after* they become lovers). Still, those mental images are very potent- so much so that some readers may find them disturbing.
But when it really starts getting disturbing is when she is sold into slavery in Skaldia. Say what you like about different kinds of sex- at least they are doing it by their choice in Terre D'Ange. In Skaldia, Phédre has no say in what happens to her at all- it's little better than rape. For me, that was the disturbing part, not necessarily the sex. The D'Angelines agree- rape or taking away one's ability to choose love is heresy and a capital crime.
I love lots of things about this book- The World, the characters, and the ideas that make it up. I love how everything in the world feels real. Characters feel like they could exist, the Court of Night-Blooming Flowers seems real, even countries seem like they could exist- even the ones we haven't yet visited like Caerdicci Unitas and Persis. Yes, it's a fantasy world, and yes, it's based on our world, but neither means that a world will seem real, but here, you get a sense that the world still exists, even when the story is over and you close the book.
I cannot recommend this book, and Jacqueline Carey, highly enough. This is the sort of Fantasy work that really sets the bar higher. With a few words, she paints a picture of a world that has a strong feeling of reality, and on this backdrop, people who seem real deal with problems that have far-reaching implications. This is a huge book (901 pages), but when you read it, you are completely immersed in the world and the characters. You must read this book.