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Kushiel's Dart by Jacqueline Carey

Review by Kamarile 2004-12-20

One of the best moves I ever made as an adolescent was to pick up Robin Hobb's brilliant "Farseer" trilogy and read it. Coming off of the pulpy degeneracy of Terry Goodkind's "Sword of Truth" and the deteriorating quality of Jordan's "Wheel of Time," Hobb's story of a young outcast assassin finding his way in the world was like a breath of fresh air.

That's why the back cover of "Kushiel's Dart" caught my eye. The parallels to Hobb seemed very much in evidence-- a female author, a first-person narrative, a hero(ine) who operates by political machination rather than by whacking things with magical swords. It seemed like my cup of tea.

But sadly, this was not the case. My hopes for a female Fitz were dashed by a vomit-inducing writing style and shallow, unlikable protagonists. I'm going to get the "pros" over with first, because the list is so short.

Pros:
The concept for the novel has a lot of potential. It's set in pseudo-medieval France, or "Terre d'Ange" ("Land of Angels," for those of you that took French in high school.) The religion is a sort of spin-off on Christianity that glorifies love and sexuality. Our heroine, Phedre, is a sort of holy acolyte prostitute, skilled at the art of being an S&M slave to the wealthy, powerful folks of the area, which is actually a pretty neat idea. I wish the author had delved more into the psychology behind the system of the Houses where these courtesan priestesses are raised; where certain types of beauty are legitimized and sought-after, and minor gradiations from the formula (such as the distinctive mote in Phedre's eye) make a child flawed and undesired. But of course, she doesn't... hence, the long list that follows this one.

Cons:
Oh man, there are a lot of things for me to write here. The flaws of "Kushiel's Dart" fall pretty much into three basic categories: characterization, plot, and style. Of course, these are the essential elements of any novel, which should give you an idea as to how one book can possibly be so gut-wrenchingly awful.

I'll start with characterization. In a political fantasy world, you'd expect the author to try and challenge the reader to think on his toes and figure out who is on whose side. This does not happen, and yet Carey seems to expect us to be surprised when people like Melisande turn out to be bad guys. This predictability might be fine had some of the characters been interesting. Melisande, whom the back cover describes as a "truly Machiavellian villainess," is pretty much a cookie-cutter bad guy with a penchant for S&M. Actually, it seems like all of the main political powers of Terre d'Ange freaks for the particular type of S&M which Phedre specializes in, which of course conveniently eases the plot along whenever she has to do something important. This usually involves her meeting some nobleman, engaging in kinky sex in said nobleman's S&M dungeon (since all noblemen apparently have those somewhere in the attic,) and then having the employer casually drop some sort of much-desired political secret when the two of them are finished.

Too often, as well, the book presents characters that the reader is supposed to like-- such as Phedre's guardian, or her young gypsy friend Hyacinthe. The problem is that these characters don't DO anything to endear themselves to the reader-- rather, we are expected to like them because Phedre babbles on about how wonderful they are. The old elementary school English teacher's adage of "show, not tell" comes to mind.

Which brings us to the main characterization problem in the novel-- Phedre herself. Now, I love low fantasy. I love it when characters have abilities besides fireballs and sword fighting. But the first person does not suit this novel well for several reasons, the first being that it is pure hell having to spend seven hundred pages with this chick. Phedre is shallow and self-centered, xenophobic and pretty stupid as well-- and yet it's obvious that she is deeply beloved of her author. I don't think Phedre's flaws are really meant to be seen ironically; when an author creates a world where everyone from the protagonist's country is concretely more beautiful (due to angelic descent) than anyone else, it only follows that the characters are as vain and as two-dimensional as the world-building process. There are logistical problems involved with the setup as well-- since Phedre's only real skill is S&M slavery, she becomes a bystander to important events where people are involved in other activities... such as CLIMACTIC BATTLE SEQUENCES.

And too many important characters do their plot-building work off-stage, since they're not in a position where Phedre can observe/have hot, kinky sex with them. Thus, the reader is constantly flipping back through hundreds of pages to figure out if he's seen the important general before, since people whose names are barely mentioned in the earliest chapters become major figures hundreds of pages later... major figures that we only HEAR about, because Phedre never gets a chance to meet them.

These first-person problems seep into the style of the book as well. First-person narration worked well in the Farseer books largely because Fitz's narrative voice blended well with Hobb's, and the prose was stylish and uncomplicated, if angsty at times. Phedre constantly interrupts the flow of the narrative with annoying vocal mannerisms: "I daresay" is a particularly teeth-gnashing one. And she'll interrupt and address the reader when something really exciting is happening-- not in the adorable, self-depreciating manner of, say, Goldman's narrator in "The Princess Bride", but more in the sense that Carey would prefer to tell her story, rather than show it.

So, my advice regarding this book: Do NOT touch it with a ten-foot pole. You'll feel like a dirtier person for having read it. On the plus side, this isn't as bad as Goodkind, and unlike the latest Wheel of Time book, I was actually able to finish "Kushiel's Dart." I won't be reading the sequels, anyway, no matter how good the sex is.

My rating: 0.5/5 amulets


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