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.