Details: (c) Jacqueline Carey 2001; Pub Tor 2003; ISBN 0-330-49374-4
Verdict: Kushiel's dart is surprisingly compelling in spite of its many flaws.
Reasons for reading it: I was looking for something that would be a contrast to Spin; this turned out to be an excellent choice!
How it came into my hands: cartesiandaemon lent it to me.
In some ways, Kushiel's dart is like fanfic (of someone like Guy Gavriel Kay, I think) that got really out of hand and sprawled over a thousand pages. The setting is close to being generic fantasy olden times, the background appears to be an elaborate justification for writing a great many sadomasochistic sex scenes, the heroine is impossibly beautiful and pretty much everyone in the book falls in love with her. I came close to giving up after a couple of hundred pages; after about page 400 plot starts happening beyond Phèdre finding increasingly talented doms to torture her. And at that point I started getting into the story, even though it's a bit silly and not very original. By the end, I found myself really caught up in it, the adventure, the quest to save the kingdom, the inventive ways that Joscelin saves Phèdre from impossible situations. If Spin was a typical example of old-fashioned hard SF, Kushiel's dart is almost a caricature of fantasy. But the sheer force of story is enough to persuade me to overlook most of the problems and clichés.
I do think the book would be more balanced if the sex scenes were pruned to more reasonable levels, but that said, the sex is very well done. The language is right, explicit and fitted in to the general slightly archaic and high-flown fantasy tone, without degenerating into being mockable purple prose. And Carey manages to convey the sensuality of a lot of stuff that is really very much not my kink; even if the theme were less central to the book, I could easily be put off by detailed descriptions of sadomasochism, but here it was impressive enough for me to be prepared to read slowly and imagine some of the situations depicted. I think it's partly that the amount of detail is very precisely set, with enough explicit description to satisfy the most prurient reader, but still leaving something to the imagination and not getting too squishily anatomical. I was particularly impressed by the build-up to the encounter with Mélisande Shahrizai; there are dozens of pages of setting her up to be the ultimate top, and the long-anticipated scene does actually manage to show something on a different level from all the amazing wonderful fantastic kinky sex that has happened before that point.
The word phallus is a reasonable choice; it shows Phèdre's professional detachment without being too clinical, but it is repeated often enough to get annoying, and it's even more annoying that Phèdre insists on using bizarre euphemisms for female genitalia. Oh, and I'm far from expert in these things, but the business with safewords seemed really stupid. Also, how in the world does Phèdre not only not get pregnant, but not even worry about getting pregnant? It's not a setting where accidental pregnancy doesn't happen, there are several incidences of such. And even if she was using some kind of magic or herbs to protect herself, she wouldn't have access to any of that when a prisoner of the Skaldi for several months.
I actually didn't mind the idea that Phèdre is so amazingly wonderfully beautiful or that she saves the kingdom. Her being so beautiful is a large part of the point, so it's not just a cheap way to make her seem heroic. And she makes mistakes and isn't magically competent at everything she tries, and there are shown to be limits on how far you can get by seducing everybody who stands in your way. Similarly the other characters have flaws, and the bad guys have at least some merits (and don't get defeated by being completely stupid at crucial moments).
The problem I had with the characterization is that it's full of that awful old-fashioned fantasy style racial essentialism. This is particularly bad when the races involved are really transparent analogues of different European nationalities; it's more forgivable if orcs and trolls are naturally evil. Even worse than the essentialism is that a lot of the world-building is based on national stereotypes, which range from being lazy to being really offensive. I was particularly annoyed by the stock fantasy gypsies; calling them Tsingani, and setting the book in a magical alt history, doesn't excuse portraying the culture with a level of romanticism that would have raised eyebrows in the nineteenth century. I also wasn't too impressed with writing Germanic people out of history because they don't make for romantic stereotypes, and having northern Europe entirely populated by romantic Vikings, and Britain by romantic Irish people and Picts (!) And the Yeshuites made me want to spit; it's one thing conflating Jews with Christians because that fits the back-story better, but it's been a long time since I've seen such awful exoticized Jews and I'd be happy if it's a long time before I encounter that kind of thing again, especially in a modern novel.
In general I didn't feel like the theology made sense. It's doing that funny thing of trying to get to a kind of polytheism by starting from the assumption that Christianity is basically true, with angels and Jesus' descendants wandering about on earth. The way it tries to have it both ways is by making God a kind of Pullman-esque character, neither particularly effective nor particularly likeable, but it rather fails to hold together. It doesn't deal with the question of why there is any religious disagreement at all in the world, when the gods are so palpably real. To be honest, it seems as if Carey started from the idea of wanting to write about sacred prostitutes and divinely appointed masochists, and just made something up to fit in with that. Likewise, the setting seems to be completely muddled about the status of women.
In spite of all these complaints (oh, and I'm annoyed by the central romantic pairing, mainly because I disapprove strongly of seducing celibate priests), the last third or so of the book really gripped me. I kept spending time reading it when I should have been doing other things. The passages with the Master of the Straits worked particularly well, much more original than a lot of the rest and giving that sense of numinous which good fantasy can access sometimes.