On Kushiel’s Dart

In my continuing look at other modern fantasy books and authors, I landed on Kushiel’s Dart by Jacqueline Carey (2002). It consistently ranks high in top ten “best fantasy” lists.

From this book I’ve learned:

  • The “inciting incident” should be early in the book.
  • The characters need to struggle early in the book.
  • A beautiful setting isn’t enough to make a good book without the above.
  • (Also, just now I learned that my WP Theme doesn’t do bullets for crap.)

Allow me to explain. Carey’s prose is beautiful. The world of Terre D’Ange, an alternate history version of Renaissance France, is complex, lavish, and exotic. It reminds me a lot of Dune in its … I don’t know … what’s the word? Grandiosity? Splendor? Otherworldliness?

That being said, I’m stopping after chapter 25, page 242 (of 901 — it’s big) for a number of reasons:

I think I’ve got the “flavor” of the book and the author’s style, which, as I said, is beautiful, and something I could never recreate in a million years of trying.

Kushiel’s Dart is not within the realm of fantasy that I prefer. It’s more of an alternate history fantasy, whereas I’m more fond of the kind of fantasy where impossible stuff can happen. I can like alternate history, but not without a compelling plot and characters (see below).

Politics is a major driving force in Kushiel’s Dart, but it is simply too complex for me to keep track of it all. Adding to that, the names are very difficult to keep straight, as they are all French and they all look the same to my uncultured American eyes. (And, reading on a Kindle, it’s impossible to flip to the glossary — somebody needs to solve that problem.)

But mainly, unfortunately, I can’t discern the plot. I don’t know what anyone’s goals or motivations are. For example: Delauney is a mysterious character with a mysterious past, but since he’s also a major character, it would be nice to have some idea of why he has Phedre and Alcuin gathering information for him. Is it for revenge? Personal gain? A daring bid to become king? It’s anybody’s guess. Phedre (the narrator) doesn’t know, so unfortunately I don’t know either. The book unfolds a lot like an autobiography: Phedre telling her life story. Albeit she tells it in a wonderful voice (you know how you can listen to some people talk all day? They have that certain quality of tone or inflection or charisma that is just pleasant to listen to? That’s what the narrator’s voice in this book is like), but still, there’s a frustrating lack of substance. In the first 242 pages, Phedre herself doesn’t seem to have any motivations except to “love as thou wilt.” I suppose that’s a fine life goal, but it lacks a narrative arc. The book is obviously building toward something but I can’t even guess what it might be. (Okay, well, I can guess it will probably be a confrontation.)

The characters also suffer a bit from a lack of flaws or internal struggles that affect the plot. Everyone seems to be in the place they want to be in their life (except Alcuin, but we only see his story tangentially). Nobody seems to be striving to overcome any obstacles — certainly not Phedre, the narrator. She is thusfar just a passive observer of a bunch of inexplicable political machinations by Delauney. It’s as if the “inciting incident” of the hero’s journey hasn’t happened yet and all we’re seeing is backstory. I suppose it has to happen later in the book, but surely it should be somewhere within the first 242 pages? (With my luck, I’m probably stopping right before it happens.)

P.S. Okay let’s just put this out there. If you’re squeamish about sex, you might want to avoid this book. It’s basically a first-person autobiography of a courtesan in Terre D’Ange, a world where instead of the repressive Catholic Church, a polar opposite Church of Elua develops, which teaches us to “love as thou wilt.” Sex is not only celebrated, it’s part of the religion. The narrator is a courtesan with a special gift for, well, enjoying pain. Yeah, like from whips and stuff. It’s explicit, but I didn’t think it was graphic or gratuitous, if that makes any sense. (At least in the first 242 pages — there was plenty of book left to ramp it up.)

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