Read-along: Kushiel’s Dart – week one

Kushiel's Dart: a #WyrdAndWonder Read-along

All knowledge is worth having and Phèdre nó Delaunay is willing to pay a terrible price in its pursuit. Raised as a courtesan, her rare gift is to experience pleasure in pain, attracting powerful patrons with dark urges. Trained as a spy, she will seek to uncover their secrets. But knowledge can be dangerous…

Each May, I co-host Wyrd and Wonder, a month-long love-in of the fantasy genre. This year, Jacqueline Carey got a lot of shout-outs – both from long-term fans and those curious to read her books for the first time – and a plan was hatched: there must be a read-along. Your wish is our command, so we’ll be reading and discussing Kushiel’s Dart over the next six weeks.

We have a different host lined up to set the questions each week, starting with me (hallo!) to get the proceedings started. The full list of questions can be checked out on Goodreads – I’ve picked a subset to discuss today. Before I dive in: fair warning, as this is a reread for me, I got distracted by world-building detail and found rather a lot to chew on.

You know it’s an epic fantasy when it starts with not only a map but a list of Dramatis Personae. How do you feel about this approach to beginning a new story?

I used to love this sort of thing (and don’t get me wrong: I WANT THE MAP), but I never pause to read lists of character names these days. If I can’t keep up when I meet them, well… I grew up reading epic fantasy. If I feel forced to check the Dramatis Personae just to keep track, the author is getting a little side-eye.

I’ll be honest, there are a LOT of names dished out in Kushiel’s Dart – with very little way to tell which are important. But to me the deluge of names makes the world feel full – I’m blithely assuming most of them are purely incidental, just hinting at characters and interactions we never see. So I’m not trying to keep track. I’ll figure out which ones are important eventually.

What are your first impressions of d’Angeline culture?

Two words for you: d’Angeline exceptionalism. SERIOUSLY.

I’ve got some fairly complicated feelings emerging about the world-building on this reread, relating primarily (but not exclusively) to the Night Court, which we’ll get to in a moment.

More broadly, the vision of Terre d’Ange so far is so very, very idealised that it feels like a fairytale or a mediaeval romance. Or – gasp – old-school high fantasy. Once upon a time there was a perfect kingdom, where everyone was beautiful because they were descended from angels.

On the one hand, I love it for selling a dream and selling it well; on the other, I want to know what the dream looks like for a farmer’s wife or a tradesperson. We’ve only seen the elite so far – what is d’Angeline life like outside the spheres of the nobility and the Night Court? We’ve had a glimpse through Hyacinthe, but only a glimpse – and as he lives (quite literally!) on the edge of the demimonde in Night’s Doorstep, he’s not really representative anyway.

But I appreciate that as a City-born child of the Night Court, it would be inappropriate for Phèdre to know or talk about this sort of detail. Let’s face it, she’s had a pretty privileged life so far

There’s one thing about the world-building that has me a bit confused: it is respectable to be a Servant of Naamah, but whore is still used as an insult. It implies a really fine distinction based on whether you dedicated yourself at the temple, which is… interesting? (why wouldn’t you? Maybe if you couldn’t afford a dove?) and begs the question about d’Angeline attitudes towards sex workers in other countries, who presumably wouldn’t dedicate themselves to Naamah. There also seem to be sensitivities around illegitimacy, which surprised me.

Phèdre’s story begins in the Court of Night-Blooming Flowers. What are your thoughts on the Court, its adepts, the service of Naamah and the earning of marques?

On the one hand, hell yeah sex-positivity, respect for sex workers and love as thou wilt so long as everyone’s consenting. No complaints, it’s awesome. Except for the nobles slavering after Alcuin and Phèdre before they come of age. That’s just creepy AF.

But the Night Court makes me uncomfortable as woah. If you don’t want me to burst the bubble of any romantic notions you’re enjoying, best to skip to the next prompt.

Let’s start with adepts making their marque on tips. TIPS. Terre d’Ange is not such a fairytale kingdom that it fails to exploit even its most revered workforce, apparently. Dress it up any way you like, indentured servitude isn’t an equitable arrangement – the House always gets the (no doubt considerable) fee, and the adept has to hope their patron is generous or feeling particularly religious today. Here, it’s unclear whether it has a term after which you’re free even if you haven’t made your marque.

Thankfully, it seems patrons are inclined to be generous – and the religious element no doubt helps enormously – but the world-building requires me to believe that this is not a terrible arrangement and that nobody ever takes advantage of it. And I struggle with that.

I also can’t square it with consent / free will – because the adepts are signed up whilst they’re still children. They don’t get asked to consent, they just get handed over by their parents and have that debt foisted on them. While I’m assuming they can decline dedication to Naamah (because the text is pretty clear that consent is vital, which I really appreciate) – and I can’t imagine it’s the adepts keeping the Houses cleaned and fed, so there are presumably other occupations available – how does that work out in terms of earning your freedom (if you don’t just get sold on)? No matter how good your pastry, I bet it takes a lot longer to bake than bonk yourself out of bond. 

Fundamentally, Carey (or more accurately Phèdre, as our entirely-biased narrator) hasn’t quite convinced me this week that the Night Court is quite as much good, clean fun as she’d like me to think it is. I accept I may be over-thinking this. Also that nobody is ever going to want me to beta-read for them because I get too hung up on world-building. It’s probably best for us all if I try to consider the Night Court’s arrangements in terms of an apprenticeship rather than debt slavery.

On a lighter note, I’m curious to know what happens as adepts age. Phèdre specifically mentions that it’s rare for an adept to be successful enough to set up their own salon once they earn their marque – so most presumably live at the House and tithe a portion of their fee until they… retire? Okay, fine, I’m mostly just curious to read a fic set in a household of retired adepts trying to learn to cook or taking up a trade because they’re bored.

Guy, Alcuin and Phèdre are all devoted to the mysterious Anafiel Delaunay. Do you think he deserves their love?

I feel I’ve been told repeatedly how amazing Delaunay is, without necessarily being shown it. Yes, he’s handsome and clever and wealthy and well-connected – and evidently a master at manipulating a situation to achieve an outcome (Alcuin’s birthday is quite a feat of social engineering). He also seems to be a good bloke, genuinely caring for both Phèdre and Alcuin, but he’s still a bit of a cipher because we don’t know his motivations.

A bit like the world-building, both Guy and Alcuin’s history with Delaunay feel like fairytales: Delaunay beats Guy in a fight when Guy tries to assassinate him(!) and then wins Guy’s loyalty for life by <checks notes> being nice to him; and he gallops little Alcuin out of town as it gets sacked (he doesn’t save the woman who raised Alcuin though, natch). It’s straight out of the romantic hero’s playbook – as is the suggestion that Delaunay rescues Alcuin to fulfil a dead Prince’s oath – and I’m not complaining, because I’m a sucker for this sort of thing, but Phèdre’s crush on him doesn’t sit quite so well with me.

She’ll do anything for him because he made her feel valued and special after a childhood of being rejected. But Delaunay bought her. She’s an investment he expects to pay dividends in information he can’t otherwise access. While it’s her choice to become a Servant of Naamah, it’s less clear to me that either of his students (but especially Phèdre) recognise the risks they’re volunteering to take for him. And while Alcuin serves out of love and loyalty, Phèdre is a bondswoman, which brings me straight back to that question that’s been bothering me about the Night Court: how else would she earn her freedom?

So I’m reserving judgement on whether Delaunay deserves the pedestal they place him on.

What do you make of Phèdre’s choice of signale?

My poor bruised heart. So few people have loved her – or loved her without wanting something from her – that while Hyacinthe has all the hallmarks of a rogue, his friendship is arguably the purest thing in her life. I love the risks she’s willing to take to hang out, and I love that their friendship has no sense of obligation: she’ll show up when she can, he’ll make time for her when she does, they’ll swap gossip and steal fruit until someone shows up to take her home. He recognises how little agency she has, and accepts her as she is.

Of course she would trust her well-being to him without hesitation

Last but not least, the big week one check-in: are you still in?

I’m in, but I knew what I was letting myself in for. There’s a lot I’d forgotten, but I’m enjoying rediscovering it, even if it is sometimes making me uncomfortable.

The Salon

But wait, this is a read-along – what did everybody else have to say?

Links will be added as they go live.

Discussion Schedule

A Wyrd and Wonder read-along is a buddy read with weekly discussions via blog posts and/or chat in the comments. Read at your own pace – zoom ahead and we’ll catch you up; fall behind, and you can be sure we’ll still be happy to chat later. Discussions will be based on the following chapters each week:

  • Week One | Beginning through end Chapter Sixteen hosted right here on this very post (hello!)
  • Week Two | Chapter Seventeen – Thirty-one hosted by Susan at Dab of Darkness
  • Week Three| Chapter Thirty-two – Forty-seven hosted by Zezee with Books
  • Week Four | Chapter Forty-eight – Sixty-one hosted by Mayri at BookForager
  • Week Five | Chapter Sixty-two – Seventy-nine hosted by Peat Long’s Blog
  • Week Six | Chapter Eighty through the end hosted by Lisa at Dear Geek Place

Fancy joining in? You are more than welcome – just drop a comment on the host’s post and/or on the Goodreads group each week with a link to your thoughts; join us in the comments; or tag us on Twitter @wyrdandwonder #ReadAsThouWilt

Please be mindful of our reading schedule – no spoilers for future weeks (or books!)

We’ll be back next week to discuss Chapters 17-31, hosted by Susan at Dab of Darkness.