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Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Kushiel's Dart - Jacqueline Carey

In an effort to be totally upfront about what Kushiel's Dart is and isn't, let me get this out of way - there's a lot of sex.  Some of it's pretty graphic.  There's rape and torture and the main character enjoys both on some level. Too many reviews out there emphasize this.  Yes there's sex and yes it's graphic, but for anyone with access to the internet you can find far worse in about 10 minutes of browsing around.  Don't overlook Jacqueline Carey's novel simply because of some prudish sense of propriety.  Now on to my review...

Last week over at westeros.org there was an interesting thread discussing bloat in fantasy novels.  It was particularly appropriate as I was reading Kushiel's Dart by Jacqueline Carey - all 1000 pages of it.  To say Carey's first novel is bloated would be a gross understatement.  It begins with an incredibly tiresome first 400 pages or so, followed by a well done (mostly) 500, and then concluded with a morbidly boring last 100 of wrap up and setup for the next installment.

In the thread, I argued pretty vehemently that bloat is somewhat part and parcel to fantasy as a genre.  To create a world from scratch, imbue it with life, and populate it with vibrant characters is not something easily accomplished without some weight of words.  In the discussion I was using to bloat to mean length, but in truth bloat happens when something becomes long for reason beyond the necessity of story telling.  Self-indulgence? Maybe.  Longer books sell better? Maybe.  Bad editing?  Maybe.  I'm not sure why Kushiel's Dart is bloated.  It could all of those things.  Without a doubt Carey's first 400 and last 100 pages could have been cut in half without a great deal of heartburn to the books conclusion.

Carey's protagonist is Phedre, a courtesan trained for sex in a culture where the motto is Love As Thou Wilt.  Phedre as it turns out is also the first anguisette (read likes to get beat up) in three generations to be available for pay to play.  She's bought by a disgraced nobleman named Delaunay who trains her to be a bedroom spy in his game of thrones (pardon the euphemism GRRM).  Long (very) story short, Phedre finds herself in way over her head ending up at the heart of a conspiracy to overthrow the kingdom and plunge the entire civilized world into war.  To stay spoiler free, I'm afraid to go into any more detail because none of the "in over her head" stuff starts until nearly halfway through the book when the plot actually starts going somewhere.

In fact, if this "in over her head" moment had occurred in the first 50 pages I'm almost sure the book would have retained its audience and likely attracted a whole lot more.  The first 400 pages are self-indulgent.  They are filled with narrowly focused world building, political machinations that only have tangential bearing on the overall plot, and copious amounts of sex.  The only reason I made it to the good part of the book?  The sex.  It was well written and actually had compelling undertones about the nature of sexuality.  I can't tell if the first four hundred pages were an excuse for Carey to be provocative with her sex scenes or whether she felt it was all actually necessary.  In either case, by the time I got to the actual action (loose term) I'm not sure I was capable of making a rational decision about whether or not it was any good.  By comparison to Carey's first half, it was a tour de force and moved at a great clip until the closing chapters where things bogged down a bit.

It should be noted that Kushiel's Dart is told from Phedre's point of view in what feels like first person objective (shouldn't be possible?).  Normally, I wouldn't mind (see my review of Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin), but Carey litters the story with dozens of "if I'd only know then what I know now!"  It felt contrived like when watching a slasher flick and someone asks, "why didn't the girl just call the cops?"  Because there wouldn't be a movie, stupid!  Kushiel's Dart carries some of that same frustration.

As an aside, I think part of the difficulty in reading such a lengthy novel is that for 1000 pages I saw only through Phedre's eyes.  Most novels in the genre of this length are constantly moving in and out of different points of view.  It gives readers a break from certain story lines and keeps things moving when one line stalls out.  In Carey's novel that just isn't possible because of the first person choice.  I'm not saying it was the wrong choice, but it may have had an impact as to why I felt finishing the book was such a chore.

I've been pretty negative up to this point and in some ways that's unfair.  Kushiel's Dart isn't a bad book.   In fact, Carey manages to make every sentence sound good and her dialog is natural.  There is intricate plot with all kinds of political twists and turns that in many ways justify a long novel.  Not 1000 pages mind you, but long.  Her world is vibrant and lush and she does romance very well.  The novel is positively brimming with romance - unrequited, too-requited, thrice-requited.  You name a romance of choice and Kushiel's Dart is likely to deliver it to one degree or another and do it beautifully.

I'd be lying if I said this is my kind of novel.  It's not.  I don't think there's any doubt that the vast majority of Carey's readers are women and last my wife checked I'm a dude.  That said, I enjoyed the romance and reading this novel has encouraged me to give others like it a try in the future.  It has not however necessarily encouraged me to read more Jacqueline Carey who I fear wrote Kushiel's Dart as much for length as for impact.

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