Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Cunning poets and deadly courtiers gone wild

I think, as a writer, there's a certain perverse excitement in working with an unlikely or outrageously inappropriate heroine - maybe it's a challenge thing. That's my theory on what would've made Jacqueline Carey decide to have her heroine/spy/save-the-day-gal, Phedre, be a masochistic courtesan in Kushiel's Dart. I mean, really, what's the spy/heroine value in the ability to handle and get off on pain, delivered in ever the bawdiest ways? I doubt there's a check-off box for it on the CIA application. Which is a lot of the reason I read this. I just didn't know how it could be pulled off.

But oh, man, does Carey ever pull this off brilliantly. I would say this is one of the top three books I read this year. The language is amazing--just the naming alone is great; Phedre, for example, is an 'anguisette.' Exotic yet familiar. All the made up words here feel real that way, due to their recognizable roots. They read like they've existed forever.

The world building is rich, downright dazzling in scope, sort of an alternate, mixed up medieval Europe where France (Terre d'Ange) is way more learned and courtly than those Iron Age freaks from Skaldia, which looks a lot Germany and Poland, maybe Russia, from the map, which looks like a map of Europe that's been slightly melted.

And then there's the whole pain-pleasure courtesan aspect, which operates in a really interesting way. Thanks to this unusual path of hers, along with extensive scholarship (overseen by mentor Delauney) Phedre becomes a keen observer of human nature, as well as the details of rooms and conversations. I think when you are victimized, even willingly, it heightens your powers of observation. In this way the book a highly psychological one. People get into powerplays with her or they divulge secrets or let her see and hear things she shouldn't, and generally reveal their inner natures in a variety of interesting ways.

That said, such scenes really are a minor part of the book. It's way more sword fights and court politics and obscure learnings and romantic intrigue and barbarian hordes, and then every once in a while you have Phedre at the mercy of some nobleman or woman--everybody here has wildly colorful sexual proclivities, and they don't keep them secret--and, oh, Phedre is gasping in pain and pleasure, and things swim before her eyes and she outsmarts all these people. Is it an HEA romance? Yes, it is that too. Looking back, I find this book astonishing on so many levels.

I'm one of those lucky people who fall asleep instantly. This book was one of the few in history that I had to stop reading in bed because it was so exciting and I couldn't sleep after reading it.

11 comments:

lisabea said...

This is a book I've picked up time and again, and put back. I was thinking of purchasing this as a gift for my sister, but I wanted to read it first. I wonder how I will ever have time to read all the books on my list....

writtenwyrdd said...

I have to agree that pulling of Phaedre's character was an amazing thing to have done. The book was lovely and lush with language and names, but after the first book, the story wasn't that interesting. Less tension.

She reminded me of a more erotically charged Guy Gavriel Kay.

And, by the way, thanks for stopping by my blog!

lisabea said...

Writtenwrydd: I loved GGK's Fionavar series.You're saying this is a more erotically charged one???? SOLD! To the woman with her nose in a book.

bettie said...

"This is a book I've picked up time and again, and put back."
Lisbea, I know you're already sold, but I had to put in that I picked this book up and put it back three different times before checking it out. I just couldn't imagine how the author could do it without being tawdry. But, man, did she knock my socks off. I absolutely adore Phaedre's voice, and words, and the nimble, totally not tawdry way she discusses sex (so much so, that I put a nod to it in "Ember").

The differences between Phaedre and her true love are character-driven and such that there is a real possibility they won't get together in the end (and, given the way she gets off on both physical and emotional pain, either ending could, technically be a "happy" one).

Anyway. I should stop raving. But I heart this series. Kushiel's Scion on the other hand...zzzzzzz

Carolyn Jean said...

Okay, lisabea and Writtenwyrdd, maybe I need to look at this GGK's Fionavar series.

Really, I suppose I like the second Kushiel book, Kushiel's Chosen, better than you, WW--I felt like it was quite enchanting and engrossing, actually, though you are right in that it didn't have the unusual and somewhat magical level of tension of Dart. But I loved it enough, certainly, to breathlessly order Scion, which brings me to you, Bettie.

Say it ain't so! Kushiel's Scion is in my TBR pile. The top of it, actually. ZZZZ? Really?

Thanks you guys for stopping by. As a newish blogger, it is SO exciting to have visitors!

bettie said...

Maybe it's because I bought KS in hardback, like, the instant it came out, but it didn't live up to my expectations. I read it, donated it to the library, and haven't thought of it since. I didn't even know the second book in the series was out until I clicked over to amazon to check the name of the main character (How damning is that? I would never forget Phedre, Jocelin, Hyacinth or Delauney--though I might misspell them--but I totally blanked on Imriel's name). KS seemed like a lot of filler. But maybe it was me. I like my FP narrators a little bit wicked, and Imriel is all about guilt and angst and struggling to be good so as to live down his bio-parents' legacy. ::yawn::

All of this is not to say I won't hop on over to my library's web page and put a hold on Kushiel's Justice but I'm in no great hurry to read it.

lisabea said...

My college roomie/bestest buddy forced me to read a few wonderous books: the Fionavar series and all of the works (at that point) of the evil Discworld overlord, Terry Pratchett. I am forever in her debt. AND she gave me my first Sookie Stackhouse book. I could actually kill her for that because I fell madly in love with Erik the Vampire. And for what? I ask you? Where the hell is that relationship going? It's like Ranger and Joe all over again. I want to march around outside of Harris's house wearing a sandwich board and waving a flag.

small rant. sorry. love your posts...

Carolyn Jean said...

Bettie, that is a surprise about Imriel being good...however, it may be all the more dramatic, then when he turns evil like mom! I think that's what I'll be rooting for.

and lisabea, I am SO with you on Erik. It really is amazing, for how little time he spends on stage, that he is such a wildly compelling romantic hero. And then Sookie has to be with Lion guy?

bettie said...

Hey Carolyn Jean, I just finished Kushiel's Justice 500+ pages. More interesting than the previous, but still, meh. And the sex seemed gratuitous. Toward the end, I started skimming. The plot felt like it was on a rail and so many of those many, many pages felt like filler. I liked it ok, but when a book is that big, you have to be crazy about it in order to avoid feeling resentful.

Carolyn Jean said...

Oh, Bettie...I'm also guessing that book was a hardcover, even more reason to be resentful. So are you done, or will you read the next that comes out? I still have the Kushiel's Scion in my TBR pile, as you know. Then we'll see. I know I hold Carey to a slightly higher standard than others, and I'll be more disappointed if it's bad. Thanks for the report! I'll let you know about my take on the KS Zzzzz factor.

bettie said...

"I'm also guessing that book was a hardcover, even more reason to be resentful."

Even more reason to love the Los Angeles Public Library system ;o). I liked KJ better than KS, so the series is trending upwards...I'll probably read the next one, too, if the library gets it.