I picked up Kushiel's Dart because I noticed one of the later books in this series at the library, but I wanted to start at the beginning. I'm glad for that. Jacqueline Carey weaves a dense, intricate narrative--I would have been lost had I started in the middle!
Carey's writing was great, although the prose was often indigo-bordering-on purple, and I could have done with a little less exposition. There were times when the world-building was laid on thick. Even though the story was told in first-person, this didn't stop Carey from divulging excess amounts of world history through the mouth of her narrator.
I enjoyed Carey's allegory of western Europe and Judeo-Christian/Norse mythologies. She successfully established the world independently of the narrative while making the motivations and actions of the characters blend with their respective nations' cultures. Although the world of Terre D'Ange lacks overt uses of magic (with the possible exception of the Master of the Straits), there's quite a bit of superstition and religiosity. Overall, the book was very believable.
It took a while to pick up a comfortable pace. The first part was dry, as Phèdre recounts to us her childhood and upbringing in the Night Court. The story gets interesting once Phèdre grows up and becomes a tool for Anafiel Delaunay. Likewise, Phèdre's true mettle emerges during her captivity amongst the Skaldi. She proves herself a complex and worthy character, debating the morality of her actions even as she resigns herself to doing what is necessary to further a greater cause (in this case, the survival of Terre D'Ange). Interestingly enough, Carey has chosen not to make the loss of innocence a motif here (although an argument could be made that Jocelyn loses his innocence over the course of the story). Rather, Phèdre, as an anguissette is far from innocent. It's the fact that she enjoys her suffering that makes Phèdre a conflicted person. And that's a dangerous personality trait, especially for a prisoner to have.
Kushiel's Dart can get fairly racy, although tastefully so--it's not so much explicit as it is frequently suggestive. I didn't know this going into the book, prompting two of my friends, who have previously read the series, to express surprise that I would be reading it. But it's definitely not extraneous sex (unlike, say, the entire Sword of Truth series…). Carey has made sexuality a very prominent aspect of D'Angeline culture, and also of Phèdre's personality, as a "Servant of Naamah" (i.e., a courtesan) and an anguissette.
At the same time, Carey has avoided turning the D'Angeline "Night Court" (servants of Naamah who dedicate themselves to satisfying patrons along the lines of various themed Houses) into a sex trade predicated on the exploitation of women. Indeed, she makes it very apparent throughout the story that both women and men enter the service of Naamah. Similarly, those in the service of Naamah will routinely take both male and female patrons, regardless of their own gender (I'm tempted to label this pansexuality, but I'm not an expert, so I won't). The great thing about epic fantasy, particularly fantasy set in an alternate world, is that authors can construct social sexual identity without having to base that identity on current attitudes toward sexuality.
Carey's world is a very careful blend of slavery and succour, of prostitution and pleasure--servants of Naamah aren't mere whores, but very high class individuals dedicated to what D'Angelines literally consider a holy occupation. Phèdre, even after she "makes her marque", is closer to being a willing slave than any other servant of Naamah in Terre D'Ange. "Cursed" (as she comes to see it) with Kushiel's Dart as she is, even now that she's a free woman--and a countess too--there will always be a part of her that won't just enjoy submitting; it'll desire it. This darkness lurking beneath the surface of the protagonist is fascinating and disturbing at the same time.
I very much enjoyed Kushiel's Dart. After waiting so long to read it and hearing so many good things about it (it's got a blurb on the cover from Robert Jordan for heaven's sake!), I really wanted to give it five stars. However, I can't do that--it did have flaws that I felt were significant enough to reduce its standing to only four stars. In places it was too heavy in exposition, slowing the narrative to a trickle. I managed to portage over those moments and get to the other side--which often proved even more interesting and intense than the previous chapters!
Definitely something any epic fantasy fan needs to read.