Pain and Pleasure in Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel Trilogy

kushielSo here’s the thing. The Fifty Shades of Grey movie is coming out next month. We’re apparently already going crazy for it, and I expect a spike Christian Grey-realted fainting spells to hit the news any day now. The books may or may not be your particular cup of tea (and if they’re not, lots of people will drink that tea for you, no worries), but as a sci-fi and fantasy fan, I’m grateful to them for reasons beyond Jamie Dornan’s casting in the title role.

Sci-fi and fantasy books are often filled with varied, fascinating takes on sexuality. Books that, unless you are, unlike me, wonderfully uninhibited, you may not feel so comfortable recommending to your book club. But at a time when an S&M relationship movie is the fastest-selling R-rated movie ticket ever, I finally feel comfortable talking about a series I have read an absurd number of times: The Kushiel trilogy (Kushiel’s Dart, Kushiel’s ChosenKushiel’s Avatar), by Jacqueline Carey, originally published from 2001 to 2004.

This fantastic series focuses on Phèdre nó Delaunay, a girl with an “ill-luck name,” sold into indentured servitude in the Night Court, high-end pleasure houses catering to specialized sexual proclivities in Terre d’Ange, an alt-history version of Renaissance France. At first, she’s considered “flawed goods” because of an odd red mark in her eye, but fate intervenes in the form of mysterious aristocrat Anafiel Delaunay, who recognizes her for what she is: an anguissette, a chosen of a god, who is given the power (and the task) to experience pain as pleasure. Delaunay adopts her and gives her a stellar education in order to prepare her to assist in his quest to protect the throne of from a threat that may be concealed in its very heart.

Phèdre slowly learns the ways of court, library, and yes, bed, until she proves herself ready. As she becomes involved in Delaunay’s game, it becomes apparent that the still waters of the supposedly peaceful country conceal plots, desires, and ambitions both petty and great, and a vast conspiracy is forming that has the potential to bring their whole society down around their ears. Phèdre sets off down a road that crosses a dozen countries and a dozen years, endures multiple periods of slavery and torture, and participates on a full-scale war in her quest to keep her country together.

Yes, there’s also a fair amount of sex along the way. And  as you might expect from someone whose divine power is to experience pain, things can get a bit brutal. But it does the books a disservice to think of them as kinky entertainment—Carey celebrates and validates all types of sexual expression, and manages to spin a fantastic fantasy yarn around them.

Phèdre is instantly likeable. Her god-touched snowflake-y qualities have definite limits, even from the beginning: She might be favored by the gods, but that doesn’t mean things are going to ever be easy for her, and she’s left with no other option than to be absolutely amazing in order to survive. She’s an ongoing argument for education, something she revels in. She’s regularly required to outsmart everyone in order to keep herself and her friends alive, and does so in a variety of ways (library research powers, activate!). She has genuine relationships with the memorable cast that surrounds her—taciturn bodyguard Joscelin! Adopted gay brother Alcuin! Scheming femme fatale Melisande!—that are based on slow, earned character development. She is made to earn what she gets, and earn it all over again when she inevitably loses it. We see her tenacity and loyalty in her drive to save a friend, and her preseverance in the face of prejudice. Girl has flaws, but I love to spend with her every time I revisit the books.

Characters aside, the plot is ridiculously enjoyable. After a hard-to-top opener (“Hi, let me tell you the story of how I was brought up in a religiously-inclined whorehouse…”), it doesn’t slow down. Inter-courtesan politics, intricate palace intrigue, arrogant lords and fascinating ladies literally and figuratively dancing around each other for advantage, a vast and growing conspiracy within, deceitful allies quietly helping things worsen from without, powerful men pulling strings from behind the scenes, and small girls who rip all the threads to shreds. There are forbidden liaisons, tragic star-crossed lovers, and even some happily ever afters. It’s paced beautifully, offering us both headlong rushes to battle and time to step back and just enjoy the scenery.

Carey has a luscious writing style. Every sentence is soaked in the deep colors you want in a fantasy—there’s never a light blue when the waves of the deep ocean will do, and there’s never a sandwich on the sideboard, there is always a banquet. It reminds me George R.R. Martin’s argument for reading fantasy:

“The best fantasy is written in the language of dreams. It is alive as dreams are alive, more real than real … We read fantasy to find the colors again, I think. To taste strong spices and hear the songs the sirens sang.”

If that’s why you read fantasy too, you won’t be disappointed with Carey. She too understands this, and she too is trying to get that door open, to show you where the sirens sing.

Why do you read fantasy?

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