Read-along: Kushiel’s Avatar – week three

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

Phèdre is pushed into an impossible decision this week when she learns the terrible history of the kingdom that died and lives. When it becomes clear that her obligation is not only to her loved ones but to her gods, she reluctantly agrees to place herself in the hands of its ruler. But can even Phèdre withstand his cruelty – or survive his love?

Welcome back to week three of the Wyrd and Wonder read-along of Kushiel’s Legacy – also known as The One Where Everyone Screams. This is the week I’ve been dreading since we first started Kushiel’s Dart. Yes, Daršanga left that big an impression on me; Avatar is the book I’ve never been tempted to reread on my own. However, it’s a very different experience when faced with friends (thank you friends, and most especially Lisa who bravely volunteered to set our discussion questions this week).

Be aware that this is a discussion post, not a review, so full of spoilers and speculation! If you’ve read Kushiel’s Avatar, feel free to chip in in the comments, but please avoid spoilers for future weeks.

We meet the Mahrkagir, learn his story, and … witness what Phedre has gotten herself into. First of all, I need to ask: are you all right?

Oh boy no, I’m not okay. I have complex and uncomfortable feelings about gods, religion and humanity, I’m horrified for Imriel, terrified for Joscelin and would deeply love to give Phèdre (and Drucilla and Erich and Rushad and the nameless Bodhistani women and poor Hiu Mei) a hug. Daršanga is A Lot and there’s a lot to unpack, but don’t expect me to be reasonable or particularly coherent – this is a stream of battered consciousness over breakfast.

Taking a step back though, with this being a reread I’ve been able to appreciate the way Carey has carefully set all this up. The first two weeks were heavy with omens – Phèdre’s resentment of Kushiel and reluctance to use herself as she once did; the strength of her matured relationship with Joscelin; his fear of what unleashing himself in blind rage would make him; the inevitable conflict between her obligation to oldest friend and most complicated lover; and so many moments where she has been told, dreamed or guessed that the road ahead the stuff of nightmares. Something truly dreadful always lurked ahead – perhaps the only surprise is that it comes so soon in the narrative (although this echoes the structure of Dart, where Phèdre’s slavery and Joscelin’s despair at Selig’s steading are (I think?) the second act). I can’t complain we’ve been led up a garden path of roses; we were clearly heading for the briar patch.

The difference for me is tone. It’s not the strap-on (stars above, the strap-on), it’s the way in which Daršanga is a mockery of everything Phèdre was taught to prize – sex as an act of worship, celebrating life, is made an act of desecration, promising death as a release (the small detail that the tools in the flagellary are uncleaned and rusty and not for lack of use is a microcosm of horror). Where previous antagonists have had complex political motivations to be unravelled, the Mahrkagir just wants to see the world burn (or well, not-burn, given his relationship with fire) and unravelling his damaged psychology can only help him do it. And Phèdre – poor Phèdre – who has willingly endured so much in service to her gods and country, now confronts the darkest truths of her nature.

It’s not just about pain and degradation, it’s the humiliation of her uncontrollable response. The fact that she enjoys it – even longs for it – does not make it okay. It makes it much, much worse, trapping her uncontrollable impulses and her sense of self, eroded further by the disdain of the zenana. This is not who she wants to be. And it looks like Phèdre’s only options here are to die before she can be made a sacrifice – abandoning Imriel and Hyacinthe – or to kill the Mahrkagir herself, becoming a different sort of tool for Kushiel.

I keep coming back to the way consent is a central theme in this trilogy (which is why they never feel like exploitative sexy spy has spicy sexy times to save the world stories). For me, this week is a trilogy’s payload of betrayal delivered in one go. That ultimatum from the gods: yes, you have a choice, you can choose to lose us. This is not a choice, it’s blackmail. You thought I was mad last week?

Stepping back from very personal responses to trust and expectations of respected authority figures, I of course recognise that this is a deeply heroic arc and an inversion of the traditionally heroic. How can Phèdre win? The same way Phèdre always wins: by letting the worst person do the worst things to her in the worst ways. We’ve seen this repeatedly across the trilogy – submission is her superpower – but this is the final book, so everything is dialled up to 11.

Second: do you feel like there’s any sympathy to be had for the villain of this piece?


Here’s a question in return: do you think the Mahrkagir is the villain, tho? Because I’m over here looking at Daeva Gashtaham, the religious zealot who has cold-bloodedly radicalised a traumatised child in service to his nihilistic faith.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t have much sympathy for the Mahrkagir either. I can come up with all the reasons why I should, but at heart I’m a judgemental soul. I feel compassion for his past without forgiving his subsequent acts.

It’s becoming apparent that maybe this story is even less about Melisande, and possibly even Imriel, than we thought… Do you still think Kushiel’s justice is intended for her, given what we’ve learned and what the Mahrkagir intends to do?

I don’t think this needs to be an either/or situation. Kushiel’s justice is intricate and in this case I’d argue many-layered. He punishes Melisande through her son – and through Imriel, sets up to punish the Mahrkagir and the cult of Angra Mainyu. Conversely, it’s possible Imriel’s role is not (only) about punishment. Phèdre is Kushiel’s Chosen, his tool and his balance; but Imriel is his scion – and I’m not entirely clear on the full implications of that. We’ve only ever really seen the Shahrizai as self-involved, manipulative sadists; but I have to think that when your progenitor is the punisher of God, there’s strings attached.

We finally meet Imriel, as well. What role, if any, do you think he’s going to play going forward?

I’m going to excuse myself from answering this. I’ve got some fairly specific thoughts, but I can’t recall whether they are specific because they are what happens and I remember more than I think or because I’ve got a good imagination and a tendency to develop narratives as I read. I do know how things turn out for him, but I’ll keep my tinder dry and reflect on that afterwards rather than navigate spoilers.

Speaking of roles to be played, we should spare a thought for Joscelin this week. Do you think he’ll come through this any more whole than Phèdre seems likely to?

Poor Joscelin. He too gets both barrels this week: caught between his love for Phèdre and his vow to Cassiel (and how can he possibly protect and serve in Daršanga); required to sit and watch the Drujani abuse and kill innocents without intervening; learning to kill slowly and painfully for the entertainment of others, rather than cleanly in the heat of battle; face-to-face at last – rather than imagining from behind closed doors – with Phèdre’s nature. No wonder he has withdrawn to protect his sanity. In Selig’s steading, he went half-mad in denial, unable to reconcile what was happening to his world and himself. In La Serenissima, he abandoned Phèdre rather than watch her put herself through this. Ten years later, he’s a stronger, wiser man, but dissociation can only go so far.

Fair to say that if he comes through this, he’s going to need as much if not more therapy as Phèdre – and she will owe him an immense debt. She may have been blackmailed by her gods, but he’s doing this for her. She may have told him she’s doing it for Elua, but he could be forgiven for believing she’s doing it for Melisande. Whatever way you look at it, that healthy relationship can only become rather more complicated.

I have one other thought, which is a thing I’d certainly speculate on as a first time reader, but knowing the outcome means that mentioning it at all feels unforgivably spoilery. So, erm, I’ll try to remember to bring it back up when we get to the end…

Space here for any other thoughts/feelings!

My favourite moment of the week was a rare moment of affection and comedy on the journey:

Phèdre: Joscelin Verreuil, I would die without you.

Joscelin: Probably. Of melodrama, if naught else.

I’m so glad Joscelin developed an excellent sense of humour since we first met.

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

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 at Peat Long’s Blog
  • Week Three| Chapter 35 – 51 – hosted by Lisa @ Dear Geek Place
  • Week Four | Chapter 52 – 68 – hosted by Mayri @ BookForager
  • Week Five | Chapter 69 – 85 – hosted at Peat Long’s Blog
  • Week Six | Chapter 86 through the end – hosted here at There’s Always Room for One More

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.