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.
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