January 29th, 2006

Brad @ Burning Man

Better than it has any right to be: Kushiel's Dart

A very good friend loaned me Jacqueline Carey's Kushiel's Dart, the first book in the Kushiel's Legacy trilogy. I finished it days ago, and I've been putting off writing about it because while I liked it, I'm having a very hard time explaining why without making the book sound more trite than it is. Because the more I analyze the book, the more trite, contrived, and market-driven it sounds ... but somehow, it works for me in this case.

The plot's a sprawling mess, but here's the tidiest summary I can come up with. It's set in an alternate-history late Renaissance France where Christianity, for all that it still exists and is still widely respected, never became the official state religion of the Roman Empire and thus of Europe. Instead, a semi-divine being named Elua and seven fallen angels settled in France after the crucifixion of Christ, and for several hundred years before departing Earth they interbred with the native population. Among the things this changes are that France never had a dark age, Europe has had over a thousand years of near-peace, there are hints and snippets of magic in the world, and a form of temple-licensed prostitution is legal and almost respectable.

Anafiel Delaunay is a disgraced court poet who, half a lifetime ago, made a promise on the battlefield of the Battle of the Three Princes; we're not told what exactly that promise was until most of the way through the book. But as part of a secretive plot to keep that promise, he has acquired two young foster children that he, and he alone, has recognized have the potential to be the most sought-after prostitutes in all of France. He had them trained throughout their childhoods to be the greatest prostitutes of all time ... and the greatest spies of all time. Our narrator Phedre no Delaunay, the main character of the trilogy, is one of those two children. What Delaunay spotted in her is that she has a rare genetic mutation, one that nobody has seen in two generations: she's an anguisette. In modern terms, her endorphin system's pain response is so over-amplified that she receives much more gratification from pain and humiliation than she does from actual sex. Her gift/curse also equips her with skin that heals several times faster than normal; nothing that is legal to do her will show on her skin for more than a couple of days. Once she understands Delaunay's cause and makes it her own, she sets out to use her nature as an anguisette, her skills as a professional masochist and a linguist and a spy, and her willingness to risk everything over and over again because of her love for her foster father, in a series of missions against improbable odds.

Now, how do I praise this without sounding trite? I can say that this is sort of what Anne Rice was trying to do with The Taming of Sleeping Beauty, without Rice's crippling limitation of only being able to write one sex scene. (What I tell people who pick up that book is, "I hope you really like that initial spanking scene. You're going to be seeing it again after every three pages, with only the proper nouns changed.") The metaphysics, the religion of Terre D'Angeline France, seemed implausible enough to grate on me at times, and it's almost painfully derivative of Holy Blood, Holy Grail and its better-selling cheap knock-off The DaVinci Code, but somehow it sustained my interest enough to get over that. It's a magical early Renaissance Europe that's even weirder than the Camber of Culdi trilogy, and at least as good. The alternate history part of it pretty much worked for me; this is a Europe where the Picts rule England, where a magical being has prevented war between England and France, where the Crusades never happened so there's detente between Europe and the Middle East, and where the various Norse and Russian tribes haven't yet coalesced into larger kingdoms, and it was interesting more-or-less to see what she was going to do with that. And as she gets dragged all over the map of Europe on her missions, it's a fictional-world travelogue right up there with any of the Clan of the Care Bear books. (Typo intentional.)

Still pretty trite sounding, isn't it? I know. I can't really explain what it is that I liked about it, except by one out-of-the-blue comparison: the lead character reminded me almost irresistably of Miles Vorkosigan. Once she figures out her purpose, she's got the Little Admiral's same sense of forward momentum, the same determination to keep the plot or conspiracy moving forward no matter what obstacles that makes him so endearing and that makes Bujold's plots balloon so delightfully.