I first started this book over a year ago, read a few chapters and put it down. A couple of months ago, I picked it up again, determined to get further with it, or at least find out why I hadn’t liked it first time round. Second time around, I was pleasantly surprised, and found enough to like to keep me turning the pages until I (at last, wheeze pant) finished all 1000+ pages.
The story is a terrific yarn. Action piles on action, betrayals and love affairs follow hot on each others’ heels, new characters appear and disappear, towing the reader in their wake. And I must admit it made a very refreshing change to find a fantasy novel that wasn’t an epic journey in search of a magical sword (or ring, or codex, or orb), involving a dwarf, an elf, a giant and a wizard who must never, ever use his or her powers. Kushiel’s Dart involves travel, but only as part of the ongoing storyline of political intrigue and personal machinations.
Carey also excels at world building and her (clearly beloved) Terre D’Ange is a masterpiece of intricate detail. The descriptions of the Night Court (basically a system of themed brothels) is eye-openingly sumptuous and the idea of a world based around a fictional religion involving a thinly-disguised son of Jesus is intriguing. Carey’s central characters, too, are engaging and even if I never quite managed to relate to the heroine, Phedre’s, love of pain, I found enough else to like about her. It does seem rather a shame, then, that two of the most interesting characters in the book (Phedre’s master, Delauney and her fellow pupil Alcuin) are killed off before the story is halfway told. It also seems a shame that so much of the book veers away from Terre D’Ange and the Night Court to other, less skillfully-described (and less original) settings.
There were other dissatisfactions, mostly to do with the mechanics of the writing. The language grew ever more convoluted and formal throughout the book, so that by the end hardly a sentence went by without ‘in truth’, ‘and, too’, ‘as it were’, or any one of a hundred other meaningless phrases which added nothing except extra words. Phedre, the apparent narrator of the piece, uses ‘in truth’ on almost every page and it became so intrusive that I was praying ‘please, no, not again’ after every single use. I would really love to read the book again after a good, hard edit, to rid it of all its excessive verbiage.
On top of that, the narrative is almost wholly ‘tell not show’. Phedre simply tells us how she feels, or how a scene looks, without Carey taking the time or trouble to demonstrate it through the characters’ actions or reactions. In the end, in a book that is very ‘visual’ in tone, this probably doesn’t matter, but it was noticeable.
But perhaps the biggest problem of all is that everything is just too damned convenient. Everyone, without exception, is terribly beautiful. Nobody ever gets pregnant, in spite of enough sleeping around to make Desperate Housewives look prudish. And the ‘adepts’ are given (sometimes even sold) into a life of prostitution without their consent, yet not one of them ever seems to utter a word of complaint. I couldn’t help thinking it would all have been so much more interesting if some of the adepts had rebelled, or gone off to have illegitimate children, or run away to be with their lovers. As it was, it was all far too glossy, and the problems such a social system must inevitably bring in its wake were totally glossed over. A pity, as without that grit and realism the book became just another romance, albeit one with an unsual setting – and a very unusual heroine.