Thursday, 17 September 2020

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


It's week three of the readalong, which means we've reached

a) The halfway point
b) Everything happening

That's right all you Dartheads - Carey has set the scene, she's baited the hook, and now she's cried havoc and let slip the dogs of drama. That means a lot of questions this from our host and question setter Zezee with Books and I for one approve. Let's get cracking:

Phédre slipped during her assignment with Melisande and mentioned that Delaunay is “waiting for word from Quintilius Rousse.” She believed this slip contributed to Delaunay’s murder, but Melisande assured Phédre that she’d already known that information.
Do you think Delaunay was right to keep Phédre unaware of his identity, motivations, and true intentions to prevent such slips on her assignments?

It's an espionage standard for a reason, isn't it? Not only does it prevent unwanted leaks but it helps the spy act naturally, because they don't have to conceal knowledge. And that's what Phédre is doing - spying. Keeping secrets from her is probably in both of their best interests most of the time. Of course, we've seen an incident where maybe it wasn't in people's best interest - does Alcuin press Bovare so far and nearly get killed if he's aware of more? Maybe yes, maybe no. I lean towards no. But certainly it can get them into trouble. 

My analogy for spies and secrets though is that it's like a goalie preparing to make a move based on the shooter's body angles rather than waiting for the shot, or making a move in chess based on what you expect your opponent's next move to be rather than the move they just made - sometimes you will be wrong and fail to stop them and look foolish; but if you wait to see the move unfold rather than anticipating it, you'll fail to stop them and will look foolish more often. You have to make the gamble with the information you have - and that information usually says keep the spy in the dark.

In any case, I'm inclined to believe Melisande that she already knew and that Phédre's feelings of guilt are more of a survivor's reaction than her fault.

Delaunay, Alcuin, and the entire household are murdered.
• What are your thoughts on the manner in which this happens (Melisande using Phédre; it occurring shortly after Phédre’s assignment with Melisande; unidentified soldiers committing this crime; entire household killed)? Do you think Phédre and Joscelin were lucky to escape, or is Phédre as unlucky as she believes her name to be?
• Do you think it’s significant that this murder takes place when Phédre has gained enough to complete her marque — that her guardian dies at the moment when she’s able to gain freedom from Naamah’s service, if she wants it?
• Do you think Phédre will be able to have her marque completed? Do you have any predictions of how her unfinished marque might affect her in the future?

Hmm. Last question first - I plead the fifth.

The second question is something I'd never considered before. I think this is mostly a moment of authorial convenience, but there are some deeper nuances. The confirmation that what lies between Phédre and Anafiel runs far deeper than indentured servant and bond holder - and that Anafiel Delaunay maybe hasn't stopped to think just how much devotion he's inspired in his wards. It doesn't seem to gnaw at Phédre that she's finally this close to freedom and just like that, she finally becomes a true slave, or at least not as gnaw as much as I'd have thought - but maybe that's the nature of Kushiel's dart. But mostly I think it serves the story and that Anafiel Delaunay joins a long line of of Chosen Ones parental figures murdered for the sake of a good yarn.

So, the first question... why not both? When you come down to brass tacks, having the ones you love most brutally killed will never be a point in your favour. Surviving it is. She has been grossly unlucky and lucky alike here, and I don't think they balance out.

• Is it just me, or are you also curious about this strong, compulsive attraction Phédre has to Melisande to the point where she can’t even think straight sometimes? What are your thoughts on this? Do you think Melisande is as drawn to Phédre, or is she simply fascinated by Phédre being an anguissette and what Phédre’s limits are?

There are few things more discombulating in life than someone who you think is really, really hot coming onto you hard - and Melisande is always coming onto 
Phédre. Always proving the point that one smile, one innuendo, is all she has to make to get into Phédre's head. And Melisande is really, really hot - both on the outside, and for Phédre, on the inside. Because Phédre knows Melisande can push *all* of her buttons.

As for Melisande and Phédre... as drawn? No. But more than simply fascinated. I think if it was just simple fascination, this would be a shorter book.

We get to meet the Skaldi!
• What were your initial thoughts when Phédre and Joscelin were handed over to them? Were you disappointed that Phédre did not try to fight like Joscelin did or aid him? Were you frustrated by her seeming to surrender or impressed by her quick assessment of the situation or didn’t care and wanted to the story to take a different route?
• What do you think of the Skaldi (lifestyle, culture, government, thinking the d'Angelines are barbarians, etc.) and how Gunter’s people treat Phédre and Joscelin?

Phédre makes the right call. There's no way they're winning that fight, but they might win the next one if they survive.

As for the Skaldi... well, here's something I've been thinking about since reading Maryam's musings on this. The map is Europe, and the correspondences are there, but they're correspondences to a fairy tale version using particular stereotypes. The Skaldi are in Germany's place, but they're not the Germany of the middle ages, they're a mix of the tribesmen Rome fought and the Vikings. The great Germanic migrations and invasions that reshape western Europe never happen here (although Germanic names are used throughout the book in countries they probably shouldn't have reached judging by what history they're given). Does this sort of European stereotyping from Americans bother me? Should I be bothered?

In any case... the Skaldi are Just Another Viking Expy. And look, I love Vikings. But despite this love, their existence as the one uncriticised fantasy stereotype makes me twitch a little. The elves vanish, the chosen ones are unchosen, the dreamland orphan worlds become more and more logical, but the barbaric brutes of the north somehow march on unnoticed. As a result, I'm less fond of them than I was, and don't really have any particular thoughts about the latest edition. There's some show of showing a deeper reality to the home life I guess?

Phédre's and Joscelin's treatment is interesting though. I am 'happy' that the grim reality of their situation isn't completely ignored. Joscelin getting thrown in with the dogs is the on the nose summation of their situation - they're just another form of animal here. The more Phédre and Joscelin demonstrate their humanity, the more the Skaldi soften their attitudes, but they're still not entirely human. And all of Phédre's "for a Skaldi" notes in her head suggests its not entirely one way. Hedwig's a good lady though.

Final grim note - Gunter boasts that if he wants a D'Angeline woman, he can just go get one. We see him ride off to go raiding. But we don't see any of the logical aftermath. No D'Angeline slaves. No near D'Angeline-pretty Skaldi. It's not a big thing I guess, but a small reminder that the worldbuilding here goes as deep as the immediate story needs to and no further. And yes, I know I just complained a little about people wanting their fantasy worlds to be super logical all the time.

Phédre and Joscelin’s relationship is slowly changing. This began before Delaunay’s death when Joscelin shared a bit about his background with Phédre and Alcuin, but the change grew by leaps when Phédre and Joscelin become slaves to the Skaldi.
• Do you have any predictions about where/what these changes will lead to?
• As their enslavement under the Skaldi persists, both Phédre and Joscelin seem to gain a greater understanding of the sacrifices their representative angels made. What do you think about the roles Phédre and Joscelin have to play in comparison to the acts of the angels they worship? (Phédre serves Naamah, who laid with strangers to protect and aid someone she loves; Joscelin serves Cassiel, who remained Elua’s companion despite having to turn on the One God to do so.)
• We’ve now gotten a couple scenes that show Joscelin’s badassery as a sword-dagger-wielding Casseline brother dude. Are you convinced of his abilities as a fighter? He’s also had to loosen his hold on some of his oaths to remain by Phédre’s side. How do you think that will affect him?

I plead the fifth again!

I'd never really thought about how they're living Naamah's and Cassiel's roles here. I think the big thing is that Naamah and Cassiel were angels and, while Carey's exact take on the nature of angels is illusive, possessed of a singularity of purpose beyond mere mortals. The sacrifices they made, while painful and huge in one sense, were also acts in line with their deepest nature in a way humans don't experience all that often. Phédre and Joscelin have a lot more doubts about what they're doing compared to the angels - or at least, compared to what they think the angels would have undergone. Or at least, they should do. Thinking about it, Phédre doesn't really seem to waver from her path here. Hate it, be humbled by it, but never wavers. A sign of Kushiel's touch on her? Incredible mental focus and willpower? An author putting the story before the character a little? Could be a little of the latter. I'm not a hundred per cent sold on Phédre reacting this way to this.

I am sold on Joscelin's ability to fight though.

We meet Waldemar Selig, the Skaldi who aims to unite all Skaldis and conquer Terre d’Ange.
• What do you think of Selig? Were you impressed?
• How did the way he was introduced in the story affect your impression of him when he does show up (first rumors mentioned every now and then of Skaldi joining forces under one dude; rumors of Skaldi movements indicating they have a leader; Phédre hearing stories of mythical proportions about the Skaldi leader; Phédre hearing his voice and peeking at him between tall Skaldi men; and finally seeing the dude and realizing he’s a tricksy one)? Did it increase your anticipation and curiosity about him?

Impressed enough I guess. He's not a paer tiger. But not impressed like I am with Delaunay or Melisande. He has the scent of the stock character to him.

There are lots of other stuff I didn’t mention, so share your thoughts on them too (all the politics, Hyacinthe, predictions fulfilled, etc.).

Ah Hyacinthe! Bless your foolish heart for thinking all that had to happen was your obstacles with Phédre disappearing and all would be well. Do you think she liked your high-handed assumptions, your placement of your culture's traditions above your relationship? Well not today me old petal.

I do want to say something about Delaunay. I knew, of course. But I didn't know the first time. I think it was a very masterful piece of plotting by Carey that.

I think on this read-through, I came across what I'd call a single defining trait of Anafiel Delaunay, his strength and weakness - his single-mindedness. He shows as this almost mythical figure, excellent in all disciplines, multi-layered and faceted, but at the core Anafiel follows one scent and is peerless in pursuit of that scent, but a little clueless outside of it. He has been marvellously clever and fantastically devoted in his oath to his long-lost love, but didn't pay enough attention to things he thought outside of it. Look at how he misjudged the feelings and emotions of Alcuin and Phédre. Look at how he misjudged Melisande, thinking her outside of his hunt. It seems a bit ridiculous with everything we know about her after the fact - her ruthlessness, her ability to deceive, her interest in the throne - but there we go.

If he reminds me of another fantasy character, it is - and recent events make me wish I could think of a better one - it is Dumbledore. Both are presented initially as wise beyond wise, superbly talented, incredibly interesting. As the story progresses, we see the human failings behind their talents, not to mention the questions arising from the heavy burdens placed on the very young. It's not unknown for readers to focus on the latter but personally I see a blend; his imperfections are not the entirety of his story for me. After all, even clever people make mistakes. I look at Anafiel Delaunay and I see a character who, by and large, tried to treat people with respect and honour. He asked nothing from Alcuin or Phédre that went beyond D'Angeline cultural boundaries. He put them in danger, but they lived in dangerous times - who knows who dies if the Lioness of Azalle and Melisande are left to play their games undisturbed? Ultimately, I still like him.


  1. I like the analogies you gave for spies and secrets. I didn't think of it that way and was just frustrated by Delaunay for not telling Phedre a bit more about himself. He also reminds me of Dumbledore; although, since I spent much of the story so far believing he's secretly evil/a villain of some sort, I wondered if he was aware of the influence he has on Phedre, Alcuin, and everyone else and was just manipulating them all... Part of me still doesn't trust him.

    1. Thinking about it a bit more, I'd probably add that the spying angle probably isn't the only reason - but it is a big one. I think Delaunay has grown far too used to hiding things out of habit.

      As for his influence on Phedre/Alcuin et al... well, that's the big one isn't it? I've seen a lot of comments this week thinking there's no way someone as smart as Delaunay would miss stuff like this. And if people see that, then yeah, v. shady. If you believe he can miss it due to single-mindedness, or what Imyril says below about not seeing those closest to him... it changes. I'm on side "I believe it". I would add one more possibility here -

      We see everything through the eyes of an Anafiel super-fan in Phedre. What if he just isn't as perceptive as Phedre thinks?

  2. Oh, Peat. You've done it again. It has been REALLY BOTHERING ME this week that the Skaldi are more Viking than German, and I've been trying to stop myself drawing lines from Waldemar Selig to Clovis the Merovingian because well he's NOT.


    So yes, if I'm brutally honest I think the Skaldi are really lazy from a world-building POV: Carey has gone for fantasy pick'n'mix and it just feels weird to me. I guess once you write the Franks out of post-Roman France, anything is up for grabs, and now I feel unexpectedly bad for the Germans :P

    It also leaves me scratching at the timeline trying to work out WHEN we are comparatively speaking. Post-Roman Mediterranean with Iron Age Alba and Germany is Dark Age Scandinavia?

    As long as I don't let myself think about it, it's all fine because it works on its own terms.

    Unrelated: yes, Delaunay's Achilles' heel is his inability to turn his intellect on to those he cares about, it seems. He has no idea what's going on for Alcuin or Phèdre and he never pauses to wonder if Melisande is a threat to him _even when she single-handedly brings down the Lioness_ - all that explicitly 'I wonder what she's up to' but it's a fond sort of 'look at my friend go, she's quite good eh' rather than 'oh fuck, what game is she playing' - which I think it would have been had she been anyone else... Flaws are human, blind spots are narratively useful ;)

    1. The blind spot at those closest to him does make sense - it sounds like he had problems reading Rolande with the response to his poem over Edmee's death (or maybe he was angry enough not to care??) - and seems to wrap up a lot of what Anafiel does wrong here.

      As for the worldbuilding - I don't wanna grumble too much about it as it ruins my fun but at the same time, a certain amount of grumbling is also fun and there are so many questions to answer :D I'm all for pick 'n mix, but it can be done better.

      As for where we are... I think the Mediterranean is more advanced than post-Roman would imply. If we're using the real world as a reference, Delaunay went to university, and the first university in Italy is 1088.

    2. Based on vague details I don't really remember from book two relating to Venice and pirates I make it 1100-1200 (although I can't remember whether the Crusades are a Thing in Carey's worldbuilding - if not, there's probably a bit more runway)

      ...and yes, it's fun to grumble a little bit. I'm not too serious about it when it comes to this aspect of the worldbuilding - I like the results too much ;)

    3. No Christianity and no Islam = no Crusades.

      I guess my big thing about the worldbuilding is that we've got the fall of Rome, but the how and why are left untouched despite the reason - wave after wave of German hordes pretty much everywhere in Western Europe - no longer being extant.

      *goes to book* Blame on Yeshuite financiers fleeing Tiberium and a defeat by the Cruithne which had the legions fleeing Britain, and then getting chased out of the Skaldi hinterlands, then back to Rome. I guess it's an explanation?

      I think the sketchiest part is where she says that the land of Terre D'Ange kept its language when the Tiberians came, despite that name being Latin derived... Mr Pedant must also note that the names Joscelin, Melisande, Roland and Alcuin are all Germanic in origin (to pick a few of the easy ones). Maybe the Skaldi have a thriving unknown side trade selling baby name books?

  3. I agree with you about Melisande - it's more than simple fascination for Phedre and Melisande does push all her buttons and can easily get inside her head. Though, admittedly, Phedre doesn't have a lot of world experience yet so it's easy for Melisande at this point to manipulate her.

    1. Good point about the lack of world experience. I wonder how much we're overlooking Phedre's youth when talking about this book (or at least how much I am)