Even as far as trying to read every good LGBT+ SFF book out there, I felt really late coming to this series. This is probably one of the last of the ‘classics’ in queer SFF that gained prominence prior to the 2010s that I’ve gotten around to reading. I think I only have the Astreiant books to go.
Anyway. I’m glad I saved such a good one for the end, and savoured the hell out of these books. What a series.
Our heroine is Phèdre, a girl born in Terre d’Ange – an alternate fantasy France founded by Elua, the son of Jesus, Magdalene and the Earth (yes really) and several rebel angels. She is sold into indentured servitude in a brothel as a young child, but cannot become a courtesan, something that is tied to the culture and religion of Terre d’Ange, due to the scarlet mote in her eye, a blemish. A young scholarly nobleman, Anafiel Delaunay, recognises this mote as something more – a sign that Phèdre is a chosen by the angel Kushiel, blessed and cursed to find sexual pleasure in pain. Phèdre is taken into Delaunay’s house, who raises and trains her as a scholar, a courtesan and a spy. She’s drawn into Delaunay’s web of intrigue, and discovers plots that threaten her homeland’s very existence. And that’s just book one.
The Kushiel’s Dart, the first book, is nigh perfect, and the series overall is very strong.
It can be read as a standalone, but it’s the introduction to nine books of a great fantasy saga. It’s 1000 pages each of high courtly intrigue, high fantasy adventure, and brimming with lovely character-driven moments – basically, ticking a lot of boxes in what I look for from queer fantasy.
The worldbuilding for this series is rich. It’s an alternate earth, and I was kinda blown away by some parts of it – I’ll laud Terre d’Ange forever. The way Carey wrote d’Angeline society and its religion was so lush and detailed, with such an atmosphere and a fully developed society and culture, so unique, and it all comes through even in the first chapter.
The next two books continue the themes of courtly intrigue, high adventure and fantasy travelogue. I actually loved what Carey did with this world’s version of some lands. Plenty are pretty straightforward analogues, like Aragonia is just… Spain, La Serenissima is just Venice, Illyria is just Croatia. But there’s other pretty interesting stuff – Alba is the British Isles that never had Anglo-Saxon migration, where Celtic culture is still dominant. Islam never developed in this world – Elua came instead. So we have an Egypt still ruled by the Ptolemies, Sumerian culture rising back in the Fertile Crescent over old Persia, a Zoroastrian South Caucasus, a Sudan that still worships ancient Egyptian gods, and a very different version of Ethiopia, still descended from Soloman and Makeda, but with a history unique to this world. Some parts of this were just ‘huh, neat!’, but some were really fascinating, especially to myself as a Middle Eastern studies/political religion student. While the travelogue sections aren’t nearly as cool or compelling as the intrigue, it’s something to appreciate imo.
There’s magic in this world, too, but subtle – the gods and angels, who are pretty much all the same as various gods and deities in our world (Odhinn, Ahura Mazda, Yeshua ben Yosef and Adonai are all featured) are considered real and play parts in influencing the plot and characters, but often in ways that aren’t immediately evident. After all, Phèdre is born a divine masochist. Prophecy and soothsaying is common as well, and one character has weather and ocean-controlling magic – divinely attained, though.
The second book, Kushiel’s Chosen, is weaker in my opinion – weaker on the intrigue, weaker on the magical plots, weaker on the new, interesting lands and all in all less cohesive. There was about 300 pages in there that could have been cut and nothing would be lost. But the final book, Kushiel’s Avatar, was on-point, absolutely fantastic, raising the bar for the series in so many ways. The character development, the emotional moments, the cohesion of all the series’ thematic threads, the adventures – it was incredibly satisfying, and an especially great note to end the series on
The characters, if not terribly complex, are so likable.
I found Phèdre a wonderfully subversive fantasy heroine. The leitmotif of her arc, that which yields is not always weak, is so great to see when even now so many authors in genre fiction think “strong female character” means “sexy action girl”. Phèdre cannot fight, is never physical – her skillset lies in her training and talent in observation, subterfuge, intrigue and scholarship, as well as her spirit. She is a protagonist that is so utterly brave and is so well developed in both her strengths and her intense vulnerabilities – kind and loving, but selfish and headstrong. And you just don’t usually see characters that prostitutes, spies and politickers portrayed as such paragons of heroism, resilience and courage.
I could wax on lyrically for the characters I loved. There were so damn many, every books starts with a dramatis personae. My favourite is Ysandre de la Courcel, heir to the throne of Terre d’Ange, for playing right into my hands every damn trope I love in female characters. Delaunay, Alcuin, Joscelin… Barquiel, Nicola, Drustan, Kaneka… Melisande as an incredible villain, and oh, Imriel.
But, yeah, the characters aren’t particularly nuanced or multi-dimensional for the most part – only a few manage this. But what we do have are a lot of characters who are immediately interesting, if not outright really likable. It’s these characters who make me interested in reading beyond to the sequel series, set about ~10 years later – a pretty ringing endorsement, motivation to continue on reading another trilogy of 800 page books.
The sexuality and relationships in this series is refreshing.
The relationships in this series are wonderful. Romantic, sexual, platonic – Phèdre finds fond lovers, deep friendships, intimate loves and new families, that grow and change throughout each novel. Phèdre is bisexual, and has significant relationships with both men and women equally. Her eventual committed love interest is male, but the entire thrust of the series hinges on her tempestuous relationship with another woman. For anyone who enjoys a good hateship, it’s this one – the most heart-aching moments in the final book of the trilogy were most definitely the scenes between Phèdre and Melisande.
Bisexuality and homosexuality is so commonplace in the world, so casually inserted, and I am so grateful to Carey for this. It’s not necessarily a gay book, boiling down to that Phèdre’s love interest is male, but so much of it is about same-sex relationships that it’s just so damn great to read. I’ve read books about straight up M/M or F/F relationships with less of a sheer amount of queer content than this series. Homophobia isn’t non-existent, but Carey inserts so much diversity so easily, and makes so many of our main characters queer. I wish this was more commonplace in fantasy – well-written, plot-driven fantasy.
This is a very risqué series, very saucy, very often. As sexual as it was, though, it’s not the entire series (something many reviewers kinda… miss while they’re clutching their pearls), and I thought it was all actually used to a genuine purpose, furthering the plot and contributing to the lush, tense atmosphere. The amount of worldbuilding around the Night Court, the organised houses of sex workers (religious courtesans, because their work is tied up in d’Angeline religious beliefs) is fantastic and really sets a lot of the tone. The culture of Terre d’Ange values sexual freedom and consent, and love as a virtue – the religion is based on the tenant love as thou wilt. Our protagonists, raised in this culture, act very much in according to these norms and values.
The fantasy angelic masochism is a gateway for saucy BDSM sex, but it’s also a vehicle for some of the more nuanced character moments in the series. A lot of Phèdre’s heroics is tied to her sex work, her skill in the arts of love. In the first and second books, I did kind of go heh at some of these moments, where it’s her skill in the bedroom that motivates monarchs to form key alliances, her charm and lovemaking that makes patrons confide to her key secrets of courtly intrigue. While it works in the story, and it’s kind of cool to see a protagonist’s valour come from their sex work as well as their prowess as a spy and scholar, it can all be very… heh. But then, there’s moments where it goes deeper Phèdre has some very, understandably, complex feelings on being Kushiel’s chosen, finding humiliation and cruelty pleasurable, sometimes aching for it – that does a number on her, at times, especially in regards to her relationships. And as the series develops, it turns into a realisation that she was both blessed and cursed to be able to withstand physical suffering in such a way, to be able to bear this burden, so all the hurt and evil in the world can find balance.
And, besides, the writing wasn’t particularly erotic or arousing – at least I damn well hope it wasn’t. The fancy French word for fellatio, plus the usage of phallus in the sex scenes made me laugh a lot of the time.
Carey’s writing is the most divisive thing about this series, though.
The prose is baroque, overwrought, grand, luxurious so very purple at times. I can see why it drives people nuts… but. Personally, I loved it. I found it fantastically suitable for the plot, atmosphere and characters of this novel. Phèdre is a devastatingly clever girl trained in observation and subterfuge, a kind, beautiful, divinely masochistic courtesan spy in a fantasy France that was founded by beautiful Angels. It’s so very fitting and true to who Phèdre is, and makes up so much of who Phèdre is. I love this girl’s ridiculous, dramatic, foreshadowing narration, very fondly. Whenever she waxes lyrical about the beautiful dresses she wears, wryly bemoans her nature as an anguissette … it’s ridiculous, but it makes the novel what it is. I became so very fond of Phèdre’s overdramatic ass but it turns many, many others off.
The whole series is absolutely 5/5, for being such a unique, satisfying queer fantasy experience. 5/5 for Kushiel’s Dart, 3/5 for Kushiel’s Chosen, and 5/5 again for Kushiel’s Avatar.