02 January 2009

The problem of Phedre

When perusing the shelves at bookstores, I saw a cover with a woman looking pensive and a tribal-ish tattoo on her back. I probably picked it up and read the cover copy, then put it back down, because I wasn't sure I'd like it, and I hadn't talked to anybody who'd read it to let me know if it was any good.

So for years I saw Kushiel's Dart on the shelf, then its growing stack of sequels, but I didn't pay it much attention. Then I saw somewhere on the internet (unfortunately, I can't remember where) that the series had garnered rabid fans, who were going out and getting themselves tattoos to match the heroine's.

I still ignored it. But having been thwarted on my last trip to the library to pick up the third Promethean Age book by Elizabeth Bear, I perused the science fiction section for another book. My eye landed on Kushiel's Dart. I opted to take it out, but only it and not its sequels.

That was a good decision on my part, let me tell you.

I have problems with this book on two main levels. First, the storytelling isn't compelling. Second, it makes my feminist rage kick on.

The story is told in first person. That doesn't bother me, really. Some people dislike first person, since it means that you know the narrator survives whatever happens, but I don't care overmuch. What bothers me about the storytelling is that the entire first chapter is telling, not showing. The first instance of dialogue wasn't until about page 20.

Carey front-loads the history of the world, a sort of alternate medieval-era Europe, and Phedre's history for 3 or 4 entire chapters. Friends, I rolled my eyes and nearly fell asleep.

By the end of the 5th chapter, not much had happened, but we knew that Terre d'Ange, located about where France is today, was founded by an angel who sprang from the blood of Yeshua and the Magdalene's tears and his Companions, each angels with a certain specialty. We learned that one of Elua's Companions was an angel named Naamah, who gave her body to strangers and pleasured them for coin, because she loved Elua. We learned that certain people in Terre d'Ange practiced Naamah's arts. More on that later. We learned that Phedre literally experiences pain as pleasure, because she is a true anguissette, marked by Kushiel, the angel of punishment.

We also learn that all Phedre really wants is to be a whore who gets beaten and fucked. Oh, sorry. She was born into a House in the Court of Night-blooming Flowers, which raise and train "adepts of Naamah," and each House has its specialty. But someone buys her bond, and she becomes an independent "servant of Naamah," until she has enough gifts from patrons to complete her tattoo, at which point she's free. But since I call things as I see them, she's a whore.

While Carey's skill at crafting sentences and deft imagery is exquisite, her ability to engage this reader is not so. I don't find myself caring particularly what happens to any of the characters, and 125 pages into a 700-page book, I'm still not sure what the plot is, aside from Phedre wants to get fucked, and Phedre gets fucked. She also gathers information for the man who bought her bond from her patrons.

As a feat of storytelling, Kushiel's Dart does not engage me. The descriptive imagery, for all its florid purpleness, isn't enough to make me care what happens to these people.

The other main problem I have, if you hadn't guessed already, is the whoring. The people born into the Night Court are obligated to serve the house they are born into (or one whose "canon" they match better). The Dowayne of the House owns their bond, and when they turn 10, they're moved from the nursery into the apprentice halls. When they turn 12, they are initiated into the "mysteries of Naamah" and spend the next four years learning the sexual arts. (From books, apparently.) Then when they turn 16, their "virgin price" is sold. They are indentured to the house until they've "made their marque," and the fees for the marquist (tattooer) must come from a separate gift specifically for that.

This is problematic on so many levels, I don't even know where to begin. OK, that's not exactly true. I'll begin with the whole being born into indentured whoredom part.

Unless the child is flawed in some way, it is taken in to the House of its mother until it a) makes its marque or b) reaches age 10 and its bond is sold to a different house, where it remains until it makes its marque. The child has no choice in the matter of whether it wants to become an "adept of Naamah."

They begin their training when they are old enough to serve in salons. They learn to kneel in deference to patrons. They learn to serve food and drink to patrons and guests in the House. They hear giggled tales in hushed whispers from the children old enough to be apprenticed. Old enough, apparently, is age 10.

Carey labels it as religion, tries to pretty it up with words like "adept" and "servant of Naamah," but it's still prostitution wrapped up under that package. Indentured prostitution. It's sex slavery tied up in that cutesy bow, under the shiny wrapping paper of religion.

While I want to be happy that her invented religion doesn't consider the sexual act a horrible thing, like our Puritan forebears did, I can't get past the part where her invented religion celebrates sexual slavery of children.

If Kushiel's Dart suffered from only one of these flaws, it might be a tolerable read. Unfortunately, the combination of the two of them makes it excruciating. I've been told that it gets better, or the pace picks up, or something, about halfway through. I'm still reading, in hopes that it does. But I don't think I'll be able to get past the sex slavery of children.


Anonymous said...

Copy-pasted from Shakesville:

I read the Kushiel series starting in 2006. I also have issues with a world in which children are sold into slavery. However, I would like to make several distinctions that you have not addressed, and present a slightly different perspective.

(1) The children sold or born into the Night Court are not raped. They are not preyed upon. They are not the sexual slaves that we think of when we think of human trafficking. Yes, their virgin price is bought at auction - AFTER they become adults, and only with their consent. Additionally, they are allowed to refuse any patron, specifically because sex is a sacred act in the religion of Elua. It's not used as a weapon to degrade women because women are a weaker, inferior gender. On the contrary, women in Jacqueline Carey's world are largely respected as human beings. Thus, in future discussions on this subject I would like to make the distinction between child sex slaves and prostitutes as our world has them, and the Night Court inhabitants, who can refuse any patron.

If you want to become outraged over sexual slavery, get to book three and read about the Markaghir's "court." That book should come with a 20-font trigger warning on the cover.

(2) Phedre's longings are not that unusual. A LOT of people live happily, fully informed and consenting, in service/submissive paradigms, and/or enjoy erotic pain, some moreso than others. The term is "power exchange." As you read through the entire book, and then the next two, you see how Phedre's gift/curse is part of her relationship with her Deity. She uses pain in multiple contexts as a catharsis. Some people are indeed wired that way (myself included), and I take exception to your implied characterization that those of us who enjoy pain with sex are somehow degrading ourselves and making women look bad. Samois (a lesbian feminist S/m organization) published a lot of essays on this topic back in the early 80s. One anthology is "Coming To Power"; it addresses feminist concerns about submissive women.

(3) Phedre is wildly intelligent, with a love of learning, and continually emphasizes the importance of an education and reaching out to others to understand that which previously was not understood. Hardly an anti-feminist position.

The series, which is now on its sixth book, chronicle multiple generations of lives in this country, of people who have been shaped by tragedy and must learn to conquer their own demons. The writing is eloquent, the storyline ridiculously intricate (Melisande's brain is HAWT), and the character development complex.

If a reader has issues with complex, "kinky" sexual natures, then they shouldn't read the series. Anyone who might be triggered by descriptions of erotic pain or sexual violence should not read the series. Anyone who characterizes all types of prostitution as automatically bad should not read the series.

Conni said...

Thanks for this, keori.

It's true that sex slavery in modern parlance has a lot of connotations and baggage, as does prostitution. It's a prostitution more akin to the Companions in Firefly than to what exists now.

(1) I would argue that their consent is coerced, not freely given, for their service. They need to earn out the bond their House or owner paid for them. They have to prostitute themselves, because they are indebted (indentured, even) to their bond holder. It's not exactly a consent given of freest will.

I want to be glad, as I touched on briefly in the original post, that sex isn't mired in the Puritanical nonsense that modern American sex is. I want to be glad that women are fully human.

(2) I want to be glad that Carey depicts a segment of society as poorly understood as the BDSM community without judgment, though it rather reads like a kink checklist when Phedre's out on her first few assignments.

I definitely did not mean to give the impression that there's anything wrong with Phedre's desires, or that depicting her as a submissive woman makes women look bad. I can assure you that I don't think people who like pain or who like inflicting pain are bad people.

(Though a completely tangential discussion on why Carey chose first person could be interesting.)

(3) It's true that Phedre is intelligent, and she states that she regrets not having learned to pay attention earlier so she was behind Alcuin.

I don't think I managed to spell out exactly what feminist rage it triggered. Mostly it's the coerced consent in the Night Court, rather than Phedre's person. (I thought to make a clever reference with the title.)

The writing is eloquent, if tedious. I just still don't have much interest in what happens to the characters. It's true, every book is not for everybody. This book is obviously not for me, except as a lesson in "style I shouldn't mimic in my own writing."