Read-along: Kushiel’s Avatar – week one

Kushiel’s Avatar: a Wyrd and Wonder read-along

Two years and a sojourn in Fionavar later, it’s time for us to return to Terre d’Ange. We rejoin Phèdre at the heart of national and Night Court politics, enjoying the peace she worked so hard to secure – and haunted by a foretelling that it cannot last. When Melisande Shahrizai begs her aid and offers a payment she cannot refuse, it’s time to start on her darkest journey yet…

Welcome back to the Wyrd and Wonder read-along of Kushiel’s Legacy as we tackle the final volume of this epic fantasy. We’ll be reading and discussing this most chonky of fantasies across the next 6 weeks (if you’ve read it, feel free to chip in in the comments, but please avoid spoilers). I’m on the hook for setting our discussion questions this week so without further ado, let’s dive in!

The world has changed since we first joined Phèdre in the City of Elua. Any thoughts on the evolutions within the society and politics of nations, Terre d’Ange or the Night Court?

I love that a decade of peace – and a position of unparalleled influence – has seen Phèdre address one of the societal quirks that so unsettled me way back when at the start of our reading journey. Ding the bell for authors who sit back and think about the implications of their worldbuilding (up front with a plan, or on reflection afterwards, or in positive response to criticism) and bonus points for dovetailing it into Phèdre’s growth as a character. Phèdre was uncritical and accepting of her world in Dart because she was a child with no other context. Having been educated by Delaunay – and been enslaved – and seen other cultures – she recognises her beloved Terre d’Ange can do better.

So she has held up the mirror to the unexamined horror of an adept’s indenture – and what it means for those who will never earn patron gifts – and forced them to acknowledge that yes, actually, this does look like slavery. And pushed them into changing it.

While d’Angelines are still quite assured of their peerlessness, Ysanne’s happy marriage and the strength of the alliance with the Cruithne (I apply my rudimentary Gaelic and make this croo-eech-nuh) – along with Phèdre’s respect for cultures and individuals across multiple other allied countries – has softened d’Angeline exceptionalism into the warm fuzzy glow of an idealised society rather than an intolerably self-absorbed and rather arrogant one.

I like it all – and I like that it relates directly back to the things Phèdre has done, the places she has been, the people she has allied with. She has saved her country – repeatedly – and changed it for the better in doing so, pushing it to grow and open and flower. The heroine they needed, rather than the one they perhaps deserved? Maybe, although I’ll raise a glass to Ysandre here too – after all, Phèdre’s influence is contingent on her Queen being cut from similar cloth, as one of the things I liked about Ysandre is that she isn’t easily influenced however grateful she may be.

Phèdre and Joscelin’s relationship is strong and healthy and complicated – not least by Hyacinthe. Were you surprised by Joscelin’s offer after their visit to the Three Sisters? What did you make of their conversation before and after arrival at La Serenissima?

Relationship status? Healthier than it has ever been.

This first week not only sets up our plot, it gives us a temperature check on our central couple. I love for them that they have made their peace with their mutual natures and that they can look back ruefully at past behaviours and laugh at themselves. The first two books were often driven by their refusal to communicate and their pride; now, they are wiser, more open to one another, and their bond feels stronger as a result.

Yet Joscelin still asks whether he should take Hyacinthe’s place.

He’s such an adorable, insecure idiot (and I love him for it).

What was your reaction to Phèdre’s confession at the shrine of Kushiel?

I’ve been more aware – and more admiring of – the way Phèdre’s faith shapes and sustains her on this reread of the trilogy, so this scene threw me (I’ve forgotten most of this book; it’s forever and gone since I read it and this is my first reread). Where her nature once shaped and sustained her, Phèdre has become aware of what her choices cost others (I love that the thetalos left such enduring marks on her soul) and no longer dismisses that cost as a small price in the face of Kushiel’s will.

Looking back, I can see she was always Naamah’s Servant every bit as much as Kushiel’s Chosen – and one of those is a role she chose, rather than one that was imposed upon her. Which I guess brings us right back to the concept of consent that this trilogy has flirted with time and again. Faith does not require consent; it requires submission… which should come naturally to an anguisette, and while Phèdre never had boundaries it seems she has learned to fear and to question.

I’m very much here for Phèdre’s continued growth as a character – I’m enjoying this older, wiser, grumpier, more compassionate version of her who recognises that she may have to wrestle her gods for her own happiness and for her friend’s freedom and fears what it will cost. She’s aging well.

How do you feel about Brother Selbert and his assessment of Melisande?

I mean, I can’t argue with him in the sense that yes, I do believe Melisande has done terrible things for the love of the game rather than the outcome. Would she have liked being Queen? Sure. Would she have stopped playing games? No, and woe betide what that would have meant to the world beyond Terre d’Ange.

Do I have a problem with him saying this means she never broke Elua’s precepts? Uh, yeah, although I am fascinated that the priest of Elua waves away notions of compassion (and the consequences of having none) where the priest of Kushiel and priestess of Naamah put compassionate love front and centre. It raises a whole heap of new questions for me about the tenets of faith, and the natures of the founders – and then I remember there’s probably a reason Selbert is in a remote mountain shrine, not a position of influence.

That said, I don’t have a problem with him hiding Imriel all these years. He was asked by a mother to protect her son; while Melisande always has an eye on the long game (she is who she is), she did (does?) love her son. Her love for Imriel may not trump her sins in the eyes of the rest of the world, but I would expect it to be good currency for a priest of Elua – and would be unsurprised for honouring that love to be separate to any notions of crown and country.

It is a splendid, terrible tale… but never forget it is real people who live out such tales and bear the price of the telling’ – discuss

I picked up on this because I always think it’s a fascinating thing for an author to insert into a fictional tale, and here it resonates with context. It pinpoints that within ten years, fact has become fiction. Phèdre and her circle – and even her enemies – have become myths (see that new generation of Cassilines, hmm). But I read it as a warning to the reader too: there’s been some ominous foreshadowing this week and we’re here specifically to join Phèdre on her outrageous, country and soul saving adventures. This is one more way Carey weaves into her text the instruction to read with compassion, not purely for entertainment (which is one reason I have loved reading these books with this fine group of thoughtful, discursive, caring bookworms).

Besides, it’s a transferable truth I’m very much in favour of – as humans, we love to tell stories, but we need to be cautious not to take them at face value. Seek out the humanity behind them.

The Salon

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

Links will be added once they go live.

The introduction to Peat’s post this week has had me chortling to myself ever since. Every future read-along will now start in dive bars with a tap on your shoulder and a dragonish growl that the Forager, the Librarian and the Geekplace are already in. Get your bag, bookworm, we got places to go.

Read-along schedule

What next? Well let’s see…

  • Week One | Beginning through end 16 – hosted here at There’s Always Room for One More
  • Week Two | Chapter 17 – 34 – hosted here at Peat Long’s Blog
  • Week Three| Chapter 35 – 51 – hosted by Lisa @ Dear Geek Place
  • Week Four | Chapter 52 – Fifty-five – hosted by Mayri @ BookForager
  • Week Five | Chapter Fifty-six – Seventy – host TBD
  • Week Six | Chapter Seventy-one through the end – host TBD

Fancy joining us? You are very welcome – drop me a comment to let us know to expect you and if you would like to join our Discord channel. Read at your own pace, but please, no spoilers for advance chapters in posts or chat comments! If you fall behind, you can be sure we’ll still be happy to chat later when you catch up.

Want to host a week? The last two weeks are up for grabs; they’re yours if you wish to set the prompts (and rescue me, heh). Prompts for future weeks will be posted in the Discord.