Screw magic. Give me some political fantasy any day, and I'm a happy reader.
I liked Kushiel’s Dart. I'm not sure if there's a definite quality improvement or if I'm going too easy on this one, but I loved Kushiel's Chosen.
The Kushiel's Legacy series takes place in a sort of Fantasy Counterpart Culture world where it's Europe, only not. From this starting point, Jacqueline Carey creates a world that, while somewhat similar to our own, nevertheless has unique societies and politics. As she crisscrosses Europe—sorry, Europa—in search of the escaped traitor, Melisande Shahirizai, Phèdre tours many of these societies and inevitably gets involved in her politics. The combination of her stunning beauty, sexual promiscuity, and savvy spy skills can be very persuasive.
Indeed, it's quite possible to label Phèdre a Mary Sue and call it day. That doesn't do justice to Carey's intricate plotting though. Rather, I love Kushiel's Chosen because it teeters on the brink of being contrived; Phèdre balances just on the precipice of Mary Sue-dom. All these people Phèdre encounter tend to help her, for one or more of the three aforementioned character traits she possesses. To put it in perspective: upon escaping from an inescapable island prison (and nearly drowning), Phèdre soon rebuilds her power base, befriending in the process not one but two other nations, and returns to Venice—sorry, La Serenissima—to stop the assassination of her Queen.
What saves the book, and Phèdre, is the difficulty level at which Carey has set her game. Despite her ever-ready allies, despite her shrewdness and knowledge of political intrigue, Phèdre spends most of the book suffering failure after failure. It's like Carey has constructed a giant locked room mystery (where the room is the size of a continent), and Phèdre has interrogated all of the witnesses and suspects, but she still guesses wrongly. Meanwhile, I guessed where Melisande was hiding long before the big reveal (and I never solve those mysteries). But does this make the book bad? On the contrary, it's very smart. By choosing it to do this way, Carey divides the book into two parts that are almost self-contained narratives in themselves, with introduction, rising action, climax, and denouement.
In the first half of Kushiel's Chosen, we're re-introduced to Phèdre, Terre d'Ange, and being a Servant of Namaah. The main focus is on discovering how Melisande escaped custody at the end of
The second half features Phèdre's lucky escape, several brushes with death, and the befriending and bedding of a pirate. The mystery is over, and now it's all about rebuilding her power base so Phèdre can return to La Serenissima in time to prevent Ysandre's assassination. It's pretty obvious that Phèdre will succeed at this one task, even if she has failed at everything else, so the source of the drama comes from everyone around Phèdre. Who lives and who dies? What's Melisande's fate? More importantly, how do the machinations of a D'Angeline traitor affect Serenissiman politics? Carey constantly impresses me with her ability to effortless manage so many characters. The universe of Kushiel's Legacy is very heavily populated, but not so much so that it's Name Soup.
Kushiel's Chosen is sort of a political/spy thriller set in a fantasy world, albeit only in the sense that slow-moving historical fiction can be a thriller (as the events take place over the course of a year). It's weakest in its characterization, especially with Phèdre and Joscelin's relationship, which is far too prolonged. (Also, of all the exposition that Carey skips in the second book, she doesn't re-explain the nature of the Cassilines, something I had forgotten in the year that managed to elapse between books.)
By far, the most intriguing relationship is the one between Phèdre and Melisande. They are each other's nemesis on both an intellectual and visceral level. Phèdre and I both admire Melisande's aptitude at the game of thrones. She is a delightfully crafty enemy and well a match for Phèdre—in more ways than one, as Phèdre considers Melisande delicious as well as delightful. If her existence as the world's only anguissette isn't conflicting enough, her attraction to Melisande is inconvenient and almost deadly. At first, I didn't entirely understand this aspect of their relationship—it's obvious, after all, that Phèdre would never betray Ysandre and join the dark side.
But it's more than just mere attraction. Phèdre is a lonely heroine, and has been from the start of the series. After the deaths of Alcuin and Anafiel and the loss of Hyacinthe in Kushiel's Dart, Phèdre is more alone than ever. This situation only escalates throughout Kushiel's Chosen as Phèdre alienates Joscelin and loses some of her companions. Moreover, wherever she goes and whatever she accomplishes, she is always still "the anguissette," identified sometimes more by myth than her own personality. (The fact that she saves the kingdom and is commended by Ysandre for this at the end of the book doesn't exactly help.)
As her nemesis, Melisande is a part of Phèdre's identity. She beat Phèdre in the first halves of both books. Although Phèdre was ultimately victorious (twice), Melisande promises that it's not game over. Similarly, Melisande is the only patron of Phèdre's who ever extracted the safe word—sorry, signale—during a sexual exploit. I would go so far as to say that Melisande is the single person who best understands Phèdre, both as an anguissette and as spy—she certainly understands Phèdre better than Phèdre's love, Joscelin. At the best of times he's clueless about the complications of Phèdre's commitments to Namaah's service; at the worst of times he's openly disdainful.
And so, Kushiel's Chosen takes the best aspects of Kushiel's Dart and amplifies them, grafting on a better plot with more sinister intrigue and a stellar cast of supporting characters. More than just court drama (although Phèdre never hesitates to give us a play-by-play of what she's wearing), Kushiel's Chosen is the intimate dance between two like minds conducted with an entire continent as their battlefield. Phèdre and Melisande face off in a conflict that is both deeply political and deeply personal. In so doing, Carey captures the breadth of human expression writ large and writ small.
Returning to Terre D'Ange and Phèdre's Europe—sorry, Europa—was truly a pleasure. I recommended Kushiel's Dart to fans of epic fantasy; now I'll go one step further and say that even straight up historical fiction fans can find enjoyment here. Carey's skill as a writer is something that transcends genre, and while Kushiel's Chosen is fantasy in name, it is fantastic by nature.