I’ll admit, I had such conflicting information when I picked up this book that I was at a complete loss as to what to expect once I finally got around to reading it (for a book club).
It’s dark (some said). It’s complete smut (said others). But like fucked up smut (said still others). It’s a GREAT FANTASY!! (shouted another who ironically was not the person who picked it).
The amazon page for Kushiel’s Dart compares it to Dune, and apparently it won a Locus Award in 2001 (also just looking at the list of other authors up for the award that year is kinda surreal).
So, after considering this vast and honestly confusing deluge of input, I did what I probably should have done in the first place, and stopped caring about any of that and just decided to open up the cover and . . .
Mostly, enjoy myself.
Carey’s prose FEEL like a fantasy story to me. Perhaps not reminiscent of Tolkien, but definitely of the type of story I would have been reading when I read Tolkien (which was when I was 11 . . . in 2001 when this book came out woah). Her style uses lots of archaic language (I now know the word “bekirtled”), and names involving apostrophes. Someone with a better knowledge of history than me, could probably spend hours pouring through the world of this book and teasing out all the little references to mythology (Christian, Jewish, Norse, and so many more I didn’t catch that it may have given WoT a run for it’s money).
There was some argument in our group about whether or not Phedre was a compelling character, with some saying she was a Mary Sue. I personally never felt taken out of the story by her abundance of competence. Sometimes it’s fun to watch people be really good at things (perhaps especially if that thing they’re best at is taboo sex).
Speaking of sex, it exists in this book. Seemingly in abundance but also in scarcity. When the main character is constantly in some state between sex worker, and sex slave, there was definitely potential for this book to become too graphic, one-note, or accidently parody the thing it sets out to express but I never felt we crossed any of those thresholds throughout the book. Given the comments I’d heard (described up above), I was kind of surprised by how much sex happened ‘off screen’, and how much other stuff that wasn’t sex (like large battles, sailing, and sword fighting) was present throughout the whole.
But sex IS a focal point of the book, and Carey uses it to interrogate a myriad of themes such as consent, love, sexuality (Phedre seems to swing all ways) and freedom.
And she does it all with a relatively deft and delicate nuance.
However, all of this takes a looonnngg time. My edition was somewhere around 650 pages, and I’m pretty sure the one everyone else read is 900 plus. I’m no stranger to thicc books (see my Rhythm of War review), but I sincerely wished this one ended about a hundred pages before it did. I attribute this mostly to two things:
- The sheer amount of characters, countries, religions, and other unfamiliar names we have to keep track of (there are over 4 pages of single spaced text in the dramatis personae and I generally cringe any time I see a dramatis personae). These worldbuilding bits are dropped in constantly and ad nauseum until it’s impossible to decide which bits to remember and which to forget (pro tip they’re ALL important which is too much)
- A structural failure, in which it felt like the most important story threads were resolved before each successively less important thread, so that the reader is no longer pulled by the main hook and left to wonder why they are still reading.
This may sound a bit harsh, and indeed it probably is, but by the end of this book, it was very difficult for me to remember all of the wonderful things it did along the way because I was mostly waiting for it to end (also, it had perhaps one of the most lack-luster motivations for a villain I’ve read in a while, but that’s another post altogether).
So . . . Recommendation?
Unfortunately, I can’t recommend this one.
On the one hand, Kushiel’s Dart was almost nothing like what I had been lead to believe it might be, instead proving to be a complex, intricate, and beautifully written piece of Fantasy which was at first a shock and a delight to read. Details like the double entendre in the book’s catch phrase, ‘love as thou wilt’, showed such potential for a captivating and satisfying experience.
However, as the story continued on (and on), it became impossible to keep track of so many little details, and eventually it became clear that the structure on which this beautifully wrought story rested, could not support so much telling.
I hate giving negative reviews because the very thing that I didn’t mesh with in the story, could be the very thing that someone else loves and I don’t want to turn them away from that. So tell me, who loved this story? What did you love about it? What might I have gotten wrong?
Please leave your answers in the comments.
See you next time!