Friday, 4 September 2020

Read As Thou Wilt: Kushiel’s Dart Readalong, Part One


'Ey up all, it's time for another Wyrd&Wonder read along and this time, it's Kushiel's Dart, a book dear to my heart for it's uniqueness. Great stories - in my opinion at least - are great because they do many different things at once. Kushiel's Dart is an intrigue, a romance, a slice of life as a courtesan in a magical fairyland, openly erotic yet full of mystery. There's almost nothing like it in mainstream fantasy for concept and few like it for quality; to me, I would compare Jacqueline Carey here to Guy Gavriel Kay for the ability to take character-led stories of growth and patiently turn them into emotionally powerful plots (the near-historical, low-magic worldbuilding and slightly old fashioned storytelling aids this comparison too).

Interested? You can join the readalong - details can be found at Imyril's site or the Goodreads page. We're only one week into six, so not that hard to catch up.

With no further ado:

You know it's an epic fantasy when it starts with not only a map but a list of Dramatis Personae. How do you feel about this approach to beginning a new story? Do you read the character list or use it for reference along the way?

Answering this question has made me realise that while I approve of such things as being proper fantasy like, I don't actually use them at all when starting a story and only occasionally look at them after. With apologies for being boastful, I have a gift for remembering characters' names and pertinent details (family birthdays, wife's work schedule, watering the plants - no; characters - yes) and take the view any time I actually need the dramatis personae, the author is taking the piss. I like reading them if entertaining (see Lindsay Davies) but otherwise not. The map might see more use but not here, as I know what Europe looks like and can place the provinces fairly easily (years of sorting French Tourism mentions from the UK press pays off!). Although I did look up the map and was amused at what seems like a grudge against Norfolk (maybe the fens were never reclaimed in her world?).

What are your first impressions of Elua and his Companions, and of D’Angeline culture? Are you comfortable with the way in which Jacqueline Carey has reimagined the world?

The very first time I read it, I was too impressed by the mythology and what not to be particularly critical. This time is a wee bit different for reasons I'll mainly cover in the next question. But in general, I remain interested and impressed. It's Europe as fairytale; if some of the overly romanticised stereotypes pall a little (Pictish Britain! Bloodthirsty Germanics! Mysterious Romany!) it's only a little. 

Phèdre's story begins in the Court of Night-Blooming Flowers. What are your thoughts on the Court, its adepts, the service of Naamah and the earning of marques? What House would you patronise - or belong to?

Let's do the easy part first; I paid special attention when Ph
èdre was describing the houses so I could answer the last question and now I'm here, I can barely remember a thing. There's too many of them! I'm reminded of the clan proliferation of White Wolf's Old World of Darkness (I'd put money on Carey having played Vampire the Masquerade) and wish the list was more boiled down. Besides, everyone else seems to have ducked the question of which group of courtesans intrigues them most, so I feel no shame about doing so myself! Strange how the attitude to sex is the most fantastical thing here.

Which brings me neatly onto issues of comfort. It's made clear that the people of Terre D'Ange see no shame in watching young courtesans grow to maturity with all the interest a keen sports fan would put in watching a prodigy, or in training someone far below standard ages of consent in the Anglosphere to take such a path. Part of me is happy to accept it as simply a different standard - many places outside the Anglosphere set the standard younger, and this isn't set in the modern world - maybe more honest interpretation of human sexuality. I've seen enough of the British press slavering over Charlotte Church/Kendall Jenner, I remember the countdowns on Emma Watson's birthday - it happens and it probably happens more often in people's heads than most will admit to. Would I be more comfortable with Carey whitewashing this, or less comfortable? I don't know, but it does raise an eyebrow at the very least.

The indentured servitude thing is... under explored? What happens if they reach age and it turns out they're just not as into it as they thought? If freedom comes from tips, is there a considerable sense of opprobrium against those that don't? Certainly, it has a potentially very dark undercurrent. And, on second thoughts and having read the other posts again, maybe we should be careful about believing Phèdre's views are Carey's views. Phèdre is a girl living her dream, in love with the glamour and beauty, wise enough to see the system isn't perfect but fortunate enough to be able to not overdwell on this. I think Carey may well have made this a system of indentured servitude to ensure the fairytale has its thorns, a harsh and discordant note in heaven on earth.

Guy, Alcuin and Phèdre are all devoted to the mysterious Anafiel Delaunay. Do you think he deserves their love? For first time readers, what are your theories about his past - and what do you think he is trying to achieve?

To slightly duck this question too - what's deserve got to do with it? As Miranda noted, love does not discriminate between the sinners and the saints - love is not for the worthy alone! It is certainly very easy to see why they love Delaunay and in their shoes, I would probably feel the same.

However, I would say that in the world view Carey is giving us I think that he does. There is a transactional quality to the nature of love here - shown in the central myth of Namaah and the central conceit of the Night's Court. It is like she is saying "we love when someone, through their being and actions, gives us something we perceive of great worth, and in return we give love" - transactional, but not base or tawdry. Reading a little ahead, I found this line from Delaunay himself:

"It is human nature, to give in hope of getting."

And I think that in this light, Delaunay has given more than enough to all of them to be worthy of their love. Has he got more from them than is fair? We will see.

What do you make of Phèdre's choice of signale?

It makes perfect sense - for all I have said of transactional love, Hyacinthe is the one who asks least of her - but I am amused at the slight attempt to rile Delaunay and his sense of appropriateness with it. And judging from his response she succeeds, if only a little. And the choice of his words leads me to... of course any other thoughts you'd like to share.

The nature of his response leads me to a little something that Imyril pointed out about illegitimacy and the use of whore as an insult.

"Why not? It's a good enough choice; no one need know you mean a Tsingani soothsayer's by-blow when you speak it."

The word whore is used as an insult four different times in this section; by the dowayne of Cereus House, by Hyacinthe, by society in general, and Childric d'Essoms. The servants of the Night Courts might be held in great respect, but they're also held in a little contempt too, and aren't above spreading it around. I'm reminded of some of the irregular verbs from Yes Minister - "I give confidential press briefs, you leak, he is charged under section 2b of the Official Secrets Act".

Well the Kushiel's Dart version of this Russel's conjugation (as I've just learned it is properly known) probably runs "I am a servant of Namaah, you are a high priced courtesan, he/she/it is a jumped-up whore". I think this is deliberate, another vein of darkness placed to remind everyone this fairytale world isn't as pretty on the inside as it is on the out. Which I think is right; people use the word love a lot when talking about this series, but I think a better word might be passion. This is a world where people don't hold back at all, for better or for worse. 

Last but not least, the big week one check-in: now that you have seen a Showing and witnessed Phèdre's first assignation, are you still in?

Yup, no worries.


  1. I like your analysis of the use of the word whore in this section (and story overall). Carey does a great job of placing these little hints that Terre D'Ange isn't as cultured and glamorous as Phedre sees it with her young eyes. I also like that Phedre lets it roll off her because she has a good sense of her personal worth.

    1. Very true - and the power of her sense of personal worth is noted when the first she's described (and bears it with her) is as a whore's unwanted get, but we're told very shortly afterwards that Elua *loves* her for it. We see the difference it makes.

  2. I didn't intend to suggest in my post that I was commenting on Carey's views - but I can see where I misworded and it could come across that way (I might go back and tweak that). Above all else, this is Phèdre's narrative, and she was groomed almost from birth to see the Night Court and marques in a positive light. Sure it's an authorial choice, but I have some additional thoughts from week one about what I think Carey was doing here that I won't share until later because spoilers ;) Enough to say I don't think Carey is unaware of the power imbalances and potential for abuse here. I very much like your metaphor of the thorns amongst the roses - spot on.

    ...I also admire your insight on the transactional nature of love as we've seen it so far. Love as thou wilt, but Phèdre has grown up in an environment where love is exchanged for cold hard cash and/or other benefits. Yes, in that light, Delaunay has more than bought their affection - he's saved them all, one way or another. I had forgotten and remain intrigued by how big a mystery Carey makes of his goals and motivations though, which is why I put this one out there - there's so many little suggestions seeded into the narrative that for all the hero worship of his household, he's feared rather than trusted in other circles.

    I love Russel's conjugation too - thank you for sharing that! :D

    1. Russel's conjugation is great! I only realised it had a name when googling one of the Yes Minister quotes.

      And I may have been reading too much into what you said as the trend is very much for seeing everything as the author's intent these days :)

      And I think the extent to which he is seen as feared in other circles only helps the hero worship!