Kushiel’s Mercy

Imriel’s great quest in the wilds on his own is over—but Carey’s stories are never that simple. He’s made great sacrifices, and terrible mistakes. And now he has to win the right to be with the woman he loves.

You feel sorry for him. No one should have to endure the amount of travesty and pain that Imriel has faced in his life. And you admire him, because he continues to rise to the occasion when he’s called to.

In the first two books of the series we see Terre D’Ange, Alba, Lucca, Tiberium, the Flatlands, and Vralia. This time, we get to see Carthage and Aragonia. The focus isn’t so much on the distances, and the different cultures, but on a quest to overcome dire magic. Imriel agrees to be subject to magic himself, and the spells wrought are intriguing. To Carey’s credit, she handles the transition of narrative voice requisite because of one of the spells very well.

Ultimately, if you’ve read the first and second book of this trilogy, you’re going to read this final one. How can you not? Imriel and Sidonie are fascinating. They cater to a slightly different fanbase than Phedre and Joscelin did. They’re a little bit more relatable, because they make mistakes and are very human. That isn’t to say that Phedre and Joscelin aren’t still my favorite (they are—though Moirin from the next trilogy is beginning to challenge that). Imriel and Sidonie are wonderful in their own way.

I wish I’d read these books a long time ago. There’s some really fabulous stuff in here that could spark valuable conversations about consent. No one talked about consent when I was young—we all knew what rape was, of course, but no one tried to flesh out the nuances of actual vs. implied consent. I was lucky to have found my religious beliefs before I became interested in sex—Paganism taught me to view sex as sacred, an act to be approached with reverence and respect. That was my roundabout education on consent, since no one actually used the word consent with me ever. I could have benefitted from having read these books in high school.

I think I enjoy the sex between Imriel and Sidonie a lot more than what is between Phedre and Joscelin. They are different manifestations of perfect love and perfect trust, to be sure. These books are fabulous, and I can’t get enough of Carey’s writing and storytelling, which is why I immediately moved on to Moirin’s trilogy after finishing my second run-through of this trilogy. 🙂

Kushiel’s Justice

This is the second book in the Imriel trilogy, and it’s just so darn sad! In the best way possible, because I’m beginning to think that Carey’s incapable of writing anything bad. But I definitely cried while reading this book. I actually was reading a particularly weighty scene during a pumping break at work (still breastfeeding at the time I wrote this book review…which was a while ago), and had to wipe away the tears and pretend like nothing had happened when I went back to my desk afterward. Silly.

The title of this book is apropos. The message would basically be: no one is exempt from the karma the gods wish to exact. Imriel does something a little stupid, that has huge consequences. A good chunk of this book happens in Alba, which we went to before in Kushiel’s Dart with Phedre and Joscelin, of course. This is different, though. We see more of the customs there, more of the day-to-day life. We meet new characters and learn to love them just as much as the others we’re already fond of. And terrible, horrible things happen to Imriel, which propel him on a quest that takes him to the flatlands, Skaldia, and as far north as Vralia, which is basically an approximation of Russia, where a fanatical group of religious extremists are gearing up to start their own Crusades.

By the time Imriel comes home, he’s completely changed. He’s finished growing up, through tragic circumstances. He’s earned this reader’s love, admiration, and respect. Usually when a character is brooding and immature you don’t see them do a complete 180. Imriel does, though. He finds his strength during all his trials to start demanding his own happiness, instead of waiting to see if he’s worthy of it. I like that sort of journey for a character. I think it’s smart, and I think Carey does it really well.

You’ll have to read the book to see what I mean, and to experience the sad parts, and the beautiful parts, and the heart-wrenching parts involving the karmic justice enacted by the gods. It’s really quite well-wrought.

If you enjoyed the first Imriel book, you’ll love this one even more. If you didn’t really like the first Imriel book, that’s okay—you’ll love this one more.

Kushiel’s Scion

You know that I really love a book when I re-read it in less than a year. I read this Imriel trilogy while I was pregnant, and had to re-read all of the Kushiel’s Legacy series about eight months later because it’s just that good.

Some authors are fabulous at protagonists of one sex, but can’t nail protagonists of the opposite sex. One of my author friends from my MFA program was complaining about how difficult it is for her to write in a male voice just the other day. Carey has no such difficulties. Or if it was difficult for her, the writing doesn’t show it. Imriel no Montreve de la Courcel is a fabulous character, and his voice is distinct and wholy his own, the same way Phedre’s was in the first trilogy.

I really admire the way that Carey could build up suspense by using quirks of Phedre’s narrative voice. Little sentences implying that the good times weren’t going to last forever. Or that she wished she’d known what was coming, because she might have enjoyed them more.

That narrative quirk wouldn’t have been germane to Imriel’s character, and Carey stays away from it with him. She does, however, manage to build up suspense in a totally different way. This time it’s a sort of pessimism and brooding quality on Imriel’s part. Poor kid. Abducted by slave traders at the age of ten and sold to a guy pretty much worse than Hitler… (Am I allowed to say that? I know that no fictional character can actually be worse than Hitler, who was real and did atrocious things.)

Let’s just say that Imriel has to endure being a slave to what would basically amount to a hedonistic satanic cult—except worse than any satanic cult I’ve heard stories about (and I’ve heard some bad stories). And sure, Phedre and Joscelin save him back in Kushiel’s Avatar. But you don’t erase that kind of trauma overnight. Or ever, really. So Imriel is brooding and somewhat pessimistic about his chances at any sort of a happiness in his life.

You see him grow up some in this first novel. He comes of age, similar to how Phedre did, and travels to Tiberium to study at the University there. He gets into all sorts of mischief, gets caught up in a war, experiences tragedy and heartbreak and passion and intrigue.

It’s very much the first novel of a trilogy. All setup, though Carey doesn’t slack off in shaping beautiful rising action and a momentous climax. It fulfills the promises of the books before it, taking the protagonist to a land we haven’t visited before, seeing them caught in difficult and dangerous situations–and of course everything is slightly god-touched.

Carey manages to weave mythology into these stories so beautifully. American Gods is fabulous, but these Kushiel’s Legacy books have an effortless way of making you believe that gods are real. Gods and ghosts and magic and sorcery. It’s really quite wonderful.

There are some people who wouldn’t enjoy the Imriel trilogy as much as Phedre’s trilogy (my husband probably being one of them). I think they’re fabulous and everyone should read them anyway—but if you have to choose, definitely start with Kushiel’s Dart. Phedre and Joscelin take much more of a backseat in Imriel’s trilogy, but it hardly matters because you still get to see them occasionally, and you still get to be in this beautiful world with its intricate mythology and well-rounded characters. If there are any writers out there looking for good examples of a protagonist dealing with PTSD (but still functional—not full-on shut down like Katniss), these books are an excellent example of the proper way to handle that.

In short: read this if you can’t get enough of Carey’s writing, like me.

Kushiel’s Avatar

I didn’t think it was possible for anyone to raise the stakes higher than they already were in Kushiel’s Dart and Kushiel’s Chosen. You’d think it’d be enough, one amazing protagonist saving her country, saving her queen. But Phedre isn’t done yet.

This third installment in her legacy takes Phedre and Joscelin to a new location—not north or west this time, but east. During the story you’re so caught up in the characters and how vividly they’re drawn that you don’t immediately notice the intricate way in which Carey draws connections to the world religions that we are so familiar with. Her alternate-history Earth is as rich with religious history as ours, and you can spend hours after reading just drawing comparisons, calling on all your knowledge of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity.

Even if I wasn’t a fan of Carey’s writing (which I am), I would have immense respect for the type of magic that she incorporates in this third book. These aren’t meant to be mystical fantasy tomes—their mysticism comes from religion, and outright magic wouldn’t be subtle enough. Instead, Phedre and Joscelin travel in search of the Name of God, to help free Phedre’s childhood friend, Hyacinthe, from an ancient binding.

The Earthsea cycle was my first foray into naming magic, and more recently we see it done especially well in The Kingkiller Chronicle. It just makes sense, in my humble opinion. There’s something about waving a wand and creating magic that seems too easy. But if you have to travel to the ends of the earth, and study for years and years, to learn the true name of something and thus gain power over it—that makes sense to me. It feels right. It feels earned. Other books do magic in different ways, and some of them are just as thoughtful and earned (like Diane Duane’s Young Wizard series). In this third book, when books one and two didn’t include an ounce of magic, Carey folds in a mystical religious power and makes it feel completely germane to the story.

What makes this book even better is the detour that our protagonists take on their way to the final destination. I don’t want to spoil anything for you, but their time in the northeast while they’re doing a “favor” for Phedre’s arch enemy (though that term falls far shot of encompassing the beautiful complexity of Melisande), is the creepiest, most dangerous and deadly stuff that I’ve read in a good long while. It isn’t unsettling in a horror/suspense kind of way. It’s a window into the darkest depths a human soul can reach and still be vaguely human. It’s the perfect example of a villain who is terrifying because they are so thoroughly convinced that they are doing the right thing.

Carey, like any good author, doesn’t allow her protagonists to escape unscathed from contact with that sort of character. They are forever changed, and will bear those scars for the rest of their lives. The stakes are real—so real that you feel yourself hurting for them.

The last wonderful thing I’ll mention about this book is the introduction to a very important character. If you’re like me, and you can’t get enough of reading Carey’s writing, you’re going to want to keep going straight into the next trilogy. That trilogy features Imriel de la Courcel, who is introduced in a very effective manner in Kushiel’s Avatar. I don’t think you could truly understand him unless you know what he goes through in this book, so I highly recommend reading this one before you pick up Kushiel’s Scion.

All in all, Carey goes above and beyond and creates a more thrilling and rewarding book here than I would have thought possible. I love expecting fantastic writing and being surprised with phenomenal writing instead.

Kushiel’s Chosen

If you’re looking for some fantastically suspenseful writing, this is the series to beat. Jacqueline Carey has already given us a complex, compelling world complete with fascinating mythos in Kushiel’s Dart. In this sequel, we travel with the protagonists away from their home again, this time to a place that feels like Italy/Venice. Phaedre is again the only person with the unique skills, knowledge, and influence who can save her country from deadly intrigue.

When I was praising these books the other day to my husband (trying to get him to read them) he mentioned that he doesn’t really want to read a “romance.” I guess people hear about the courtesan with BDSM leanings and assume they’re looking at a romance or even erotica novel. This series is far from typical of either of those genres. I would say it’s more similar to Romantic literature, almost, though a better description would probably be “alternate history Earth with compelling female protagonist.” The books they remind me most of are actually Patrick RothfussThe Kingkiller Chronicle, though that might have more to do with the narrative style and the fact that you’re starting out with a particularly naturally-skilled protagonist.

Any “romance” in these books is more slow-burning, almost like how we had to wait so many books to see Ron and Hermione finally happen in the Harry Potter series. The relationships between characters are intricate, and never simple. I have an immense amount of admiration for how Carey can write a character at war with themself. She doesn’t skimp on the secondary characters, either. Everyone feels complete and complicated, like normal humans are.

The stakes feel higher in this book than the first, which I wouldn’t have thought possible. Strangely enough, Carey is able to raise them even more in the third book. I don’t know that I even need to urge anyone to read this second installment—if they aren’t automatically picking it up right after finishing Kushiel’s Dart, then my words would probably be falling on deaf ears. I have trouble imagining a person who would dislike these books (how can you dislike writing that is THIS good?), but I suppose they probably exist somewhere. If you like compelling characters, intricate worlds/mythos, and suspense, you’re missing out until you’ve read these.

Kushiel’s Dart

Whew. There’s definitely some steamy goodness in this book. I’ve seen some people on the internet getting all huffy about it—she’s so young! She’s a sex worker! It’s BDSM!

And sure, if there’s just no pleasure sensor in your body that lights up with a little bit of consensual violence, maybe you’ll find parts of the story too distasteful for you to enjoy the rest.

As for me, I very much enjoyed reading about Phedre no Delaunay. Sold to one of the Houses of the Night-Blooming Court at a young age, Phedre’s marque is bought at ten by Anafiel Delaunay. He trains her in the arts of subtly and spying, and at sixteen Phedre uses her courtesan skills to uncover many secrets for the good of the realm.

When I first started reading, for maybe the first page, I was put off by the narrative voice. I could tell I was in for denser reading than most other Young Adult, and I could tell that the author was our very own main character, older and wiser and telling us her story. That sometimes puts me off, knowing that we might have certain things spoiled for us, the delightful suspense taken away because our narrator already knows how the story ends.

The writing is careful, though, and clever. And rather than detract, the narrative style actually adds to the story, building up more suspense as Phedre marvels at her ignorance at times, and drops sly hints to say that things were different, back then.

The narrative voice reminded me partly of Wraeththu, by Storm Constantine, and partly of The Shadow of the Torturer, by Gene Wolfe. It wasn’t an unpleasant reminder—I greatly enjoyed those books, and reading Kushiel’s Dart brought me back to being a teenager, reading books off my high school sweetheart’s bookshelf.

The amount of political intrigue in this book might be off-putting to some, and to be quite honest, I expected to get bored of it myself. I’m not really one for those types of stories, with all their twists and turns and subtle implications. I think there is probably quite a bit that went over my head, actually, though I don’t feel like I’m missing any essential piece of the story. However, the pacing of this story was extraordinary. I always wanted to know more. Secrets were unveiled at just the right time, or another delicious sexual encounter would occur, or a romance would take wing just when I might otherwise be finding my attention straying. I haven’t been glued to a book like that in quite some time, actually, and it was satisfying and wonderful.

I’m currently reading the second book in the series, and loving it as well. Major props to my Mama Bear from my graduate program, for putting me on to this series (her favorite). I’m glad to finally be reading them, and happy to find that they are so damn enjoyable.