Read-along: Kushiel’s Chosen – week five

Kushiel's Chosen: A Wyrd and Wonder Read-along

Beset by political and literal storms, Phèdre and her Illyrian captors find themselves barred safe haven and cast ashore on an ancient island of mysteries. Phèdre needs help at any price, but can she persuade the Kritians – or the Illyrians – that the reward of Ysandre’s friendship is worth the risk of Serenissiman enmity?

It’s the penultimate week of our Wyrd and Wonder read-along of Kushiel’s Chosen, and our heroine is at sea. The expansive re-imagining of the world encompasses Crete and Croatia this week before returning to La Serenissima to prepare for the showdown with Melisande.

The questions are all from me this week, so let’s talk chapters 56-70 (and yes, I got that cut-off completely wrong. Sorry folks, brainfart).

What did you make of Phèdre’s interventions to save Kazan – first from the kríavbhog and then from the thetalos? Do you think he deserved it? 

There’s a recurring them this week – bookended by Phèdre’s intervention to save Kazan from his curse and Oljukh’s admission that he will die for Phèdre because she’s kind – about love as a driving force. Phèdre candidly acknowledges to Pasiphae that you can’t always control who you love – and that (regardless of context) she refuses to deny it, as that would be to deny Elua’s philosophy. While Kazan may have been a pirate and a cheat, he’s also bold and brash and honourable after a fashion – and he did risk his life and the lives of his men to save her from the Serenissimans. Of course she ends up loving him a little (although it doesn’t mean she forgives him his transgressions against her), and so won’t see him die as means to her ends.

In a different fantasy – with a different heroine – Phèdre might have pushed him into the sea outside Epidauro or abandoned him to the kríavbhog, but part of the joy I take in her as a protagonist is her compassion and her loyalty. We see it over and over: regardless of her circumstances, she forms bonds with those around her, taking time to see their good points (I’m thinking of Gunter and the Skaldi in particular). It’s not hard to love Phèdre in return, of course – beautiful, kind, gentle – so it generally works to her advantage in the end …and okay, yes, sometimes – very rarely – that end does involve a knife in the heart. But I certainly don’t think Kazan deserved that any more than he deserved an angry curse dragon (although it’s a delightfully mythological punishment). So whether he deserved rescuing, I think any other action (or inaction; Phèdre may be submissive, but she’s rarely passive) would have felt out of character for Phèdre.

There’s also an aspect here of Phèdre as Kushiel’s chosen, and Kushiel as God’s Punisher. Arguably an Illyrian pirate is well outside his remit – but if Kazan can seek to be cleansed of blood-guilt by a Hellene god (Zagreus), then perhaps a d’Angeline demi-god can say ‘you have been punished enough’. Compassion is one of Kushiel’s qualities, after all; so – in that doubled-up way the narrative often works – perhaps Phèdre acts not only because she cares, but as Kushiel’s agent.

Or maybe I’m overthinking all this…

The shadow of the supernatural lies heavy across the narrative. How / does this affect your understanding of Melisande, Marco Stregazza and their ambitions?

I commented last week that the narrative largely lets us draw our own conclusions about the reality of the divine in this version of the world: this week, it’s harder not to see the supernatural in play. That being the case, Melisande and Marco Stregazza have balls of steel.

Melisande likely doesn’t subscribe to fanciful notions like blood-guilt – I don’t see her paying a visit to the Temenos! – but she’s soaked in the cost of her ambition. She’s got a single limit – she won’t kill Kushiel’s Dart for fear of Kushiel – but it does leave me wondering whether she actually believes she’ll face a metaphysical reckoning for the rest her deeds (and I guess I’m still unclear the extent to which the d’Angeline faith of Terre d’Ange Beyond encompasses an afterlife). She certainly seems to believe it a risk worth taking. But that’s Melisande all over, isn’t it? A woman who will take the risks to reap the rewards – she never plays safe when she can play to win big.

Marco Stregazza, on the other hand, strikes me as a man who doesn’t believe in the divine at all; just in his own ambition. If he believed, there’s surely no coming back from corrupting the Temple of Asherat to seize the seat of a still-living Doge. His actions only make sense to me as those of a ruthlessly self-interested man who simply sees religion as a tool to help him achieve his ends (or as a hindrance to be circumvented) and the gods as fanciful tales he can use to control the narrative.

From where I sit, it seems the gods take very little direct action – but they don’t need to, they have Phèdre to act on their behalf and she’s very generous in her services. I don’t think that makes the outcome a foregone conclusion, by the way – gods have the luxury of time. Nothing says divine retribution like dishing up just desserts years later (mythology loves an avenger, after all).

Phèdre describes La Serenissima and Kriti as ‘civilised’; she does not grant it to Illyria. Any thoughts on d’Angeline perceptions / expectations of ‘civilisation’?

I think it’s a carefully chosen prejudice that reflects European exceptionalism in our own world. What I like about Carey’s series is the way she clearly distinguishes between what Phèdre has been taught / believes and what Phèdre experiences and comes to appreciate about other cultures (which is that they all have value and are worthy of respect).

That said, what Terre d’Ange considers ‘civilised’ seems a bit arbitrary sometimes – I’ve pretty much got it down to “Hellene culture was the original civilisation, we love that shit”, “Tiberium ruled the world and does running water and universities, that totally counts” and “well obviously Terre d’Ange, we have the Night Court” – but after that? Not being civilised seems to be more about not being d’Angeline, Hellene or Tiberian than anything else. Maybe I just haven’t been paying attention to the right things 😀

And if civilisation requires you to rouge your nipples, you can keep it.

Reunited! Do you think this separation will be enough to bind Joscelin and Phèdre together in future – if they survive?

If nothing else, I think they each appreciate how much they love and need the other – flaws and all – at this point, which has to be a good start. And I think they’ve each realised how badly they’ve behaved, which is promising. Now they just need to survive a dramatic finale and practice talking.

The Salon

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

Links will be added once they go live.

Read-along schedule

We’ll be finishing our journey next week, with Lisa @ Dear Geek Place prompting our thoughts on the final chapters – questions will appear over the weekend(ish) on the Goodreads group.

Only just finding us? It’s never too late to jump into the comments to join the conversation – but please, avoid spoilers for the final week and for future books!