When my friend, the writer Sara Douglass, first toured America, she did so with two other wonderful authors: Juliet Marillier and then newcomer, Jacqueline Carey. So taken was Sara with Carey’s work, she brought back copies of her debut novel for me, and our friend, Francis Thiele, and gifted them with the instructions: “you must read this book.” Never one to ignore a directive like that, I did. Oh. My. Recently, I picked this novel up again, to remind myself of what it was I loved about it before reading the sequels… My. My.
This is a sublime and highly erotic tale of a beautiful woman named Phedre who, as a child, is indentured to a guild dedicated to sensuality and the arts of love and where she is taught how to pleasure others with her body. Born with a scarlet mote in her eye (a ‘dart’) the mark of the goddess Kushiel, Phedre is no ordinary courtesan but one who can receive and inflict both pleasure and pain. Highly sought after, it is in the bedchambers and among the other nobles of her land (and foreign dignitaries who desire to experience the arts of one who possesses Kushiel’s Dart), that Phedre’s worth as a lover, spy and keeper and secrets is realized.
The world that Carey has created is sublime, the language of the novel so poetic. You savour words and phrases, appreciate the elegance of the descriptions, and experience the longing that Phedre arouses; the descriptions of pain are visceral and detailed, yet also tantalizingly seductive. Your flesh tingles as you read and your cheeks grow warm – continuing is not for the faint-hearted. Nothing is gratuitous but endowed with meaning and adds to the reader’s understanding of Phedre’s worth in this hedonistic, complex and powerful realm. Carey uses her knowledge of history and politics to create a rich and imaginative world based on Europe during the Middle Ages/Renaissance but with an almost Byzantine feel, where art and poetry are both beautiful and deadly and always valued and where sensuality is a currency. Never unnecessarily graphic, but nonetheless charged with eroticism and heat, this is one of the most original fantasy novels I’ve enjoyed in a while.
It was a terrific read the first time and even better the second.