Spoiler alert! This review reveals significant plot details.
Soon after my return to Terre d'Ange in Kushiel's Chosen, I'm back for round three: Kushiel's Avatar. Let's do this.
We begin "ten years later…" with a recap of the previous two books, reminding us who this Phèdre chick is and why we care. Specifically, we recall the contribution of Hyacinthe, a Romani—sorry, Tsingano—prince and lifelong friend of Phèdre. Way back in Kushiel’s Dart (remember that? remember?), Hyacinthe saved Phèdre from having to take the place of the cursed Master of the Straits. Ever since then, Phèdre has been scouring all the Yeshuite lore she can lay hands on for a way of breaking the curse. That is, when she isn't busy traipsing around the continent making alliances, smoking out traitors, and—let us not forget—serving Namaah. This woman gets things done.
Phèdre gets a dubious break in her search when she's contacted by aforementioned smoked-out traitor, Melisande Shahrizai. Melisande's son, Imriel, who is third-in-line for the throne of Terre D'Ange, has gone missing. Phèdre, who has serious issues with Melisande, ends up promising to find Imriel. The fact that she's been searching for him for ten years with no success doesn't really recommend her for this job. But apparently, Melisande thinks that if anyone can find Imriel when she can't, it's the one woman whom she's outsmarted for ten years by hiding her son. This bizarre, D'Angeline logic doesn't appeal to me, but it certainly drives the plot forward.
So Phèdre and Joscelin get involved in all sorts of African adventures, and along the way, Phèdre picks up a handy Name of God that frees Hyacinthe. And in the ten years since the last book, everyone's "beauty has deepened" (Carey uses that exact phrase to describe the ageing of both Phèdre and Melisande). Oh, and there's lots of violent sex. And Imriel is awesome. I think that about covers it.
From the somewhat flippant tone of this review, you might get the impression that I didn't find much to like about this book. Nothing could be further from the truth. I could spend 1200 words gushing about Carey's writing and worldbuilding, but I've already done that. So rather than repeat that performance, I'll just refer you to the prior review and save the space here for my criticism.
While Kushiel's Avatar contains all the ingredients I know and like about this series, the proportions are a bit off. What I loved about Kushiel's Chosen (and, to some extent, Kushiel's Dart) was the political intrigue. That sort of intrigue is almost non-existent here. Sure, Phèdre befriends a couple of countries on behalf of Terre d'Ange and overthrows another one, but that's, like, a normal afternoon for her. There's no challenge to it. The worst thing that happens is she sells herself into sexual slavery—and I'm not trying to belittle the emotional and psychological trauma of that experience, but on the political level, there's nothing going on here. I know a lot of people praise Kushiel's Avatar as the best book of the series (they may be correct) and as a fine book in its own right, but it's not exactly what I was hoping it would be.
Kushiel's Avatar is more successful on the personal level. Even then, however, a lot of Phèdre's struggle doesn't have the same gravity as it did in the first two books (which is odd, considering she's going after the Name of God here, which is the most "high stakes" you can get). Carey achieves a nice sense of dramatic symmetry by having Phèdre intentionally sell herself into slavery, recalling the time Melisande did it for her. But I never really feel like she's risking anything. She complains a lot about how hard it is to be an anguissette, the pain-bearer, Kushiel's Chosen … but her pain is transitory. In the previous book, Phèdre gambled big and lost big, her mistake costing her the lives of Fortun and Remy. Where are the mistakes Phèdre makes here?
Is it the "kidnapping" of Imriel and forcing his subsequent adoption, losing Ysandre's friendship in the process? Hardly. It's not like that particular rift will last long: we know they'll make up. So what about Joscelin? Does their time in Drujan drive them apart? Again, not by much and not for long. OK, but what about Hyacinthe? Surely with him free, there's a love triangle in the making, yes? Except that he has a girl waiting for him, and they're going off to Alba so he can continue being Master of the Straits, minus the curse. It's happily-ever-after all around.
Which is fine: happy endings have their place, and far be it from me to insist on tragedy. Nevertheless, Kushiel's Avatar lacks that fragile fallibility that made Phèdre so appealing in the first two books. The only event that seems to cost Phèdre anything is the death of the Mahrkagir (and the lives of the guards and women of the zenana who aided in the coup). She rightly resolves to remember that incident, not only for the allies who gave their lives for her, but for her own kill as well. Phèdre pitied the Mahrkagir as much as he loved her, and in her grief we see the nature of her heroism.
Phèdre, more than anyone, sees people for everything they are, not just the most obvious things. It's why she loves Melisande, much to everyone else's concern, and why she insists that Imriel be left free to choose whether to continue a relationship with his mother. Phèdre insists on both sides of a story, not just the convenient side. It's that determination to do what's right, not merely convenient or comfortable, that makes her such a forceful character.
Oh look, I'm gushing. What can I say? Although I feel like Kushiel's Avatar doesn't replicate the high stakes—political and personal—of Kushiel's Chosen, it's still a good read.