melannen: Commander Valentine of Alpha Squad Seven, a red-haired female Nick Fury in space, smoking contemplatively (Default)
melannen ([personal profile] melannen) wrote2017-03-20 08:25 pm
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FMK: Kushiel's Dart

So! Kushiel's Dart.

That was not a one-night-stand book. That was, at best, a "mad weekend at a cabin in the mountains" book. By which I mean, it was long. I read fiction pretty fast, and it took me about nine hours of reading time to get through that. Probably I am spoiled by my reading speed, because most books I can get through in one sitting. Not Kushiel. Not unless I wanted to pull an all-nighter, and I'm too old for that now. Did I mention it is long? It's the longest book I have read since I started tracking reading on Goodreads. It is the fourth longest novel I own (and two of the three longer ones are Outlander.) It is tied for longest novel I have ever read (with Cryptonomicon. And Cryptonomicon I did read in one night of passion, but I was almost fifteen years younger and even then it didn't go real well for me.) (okay, Les Mis is technically longer, but Les Mis is also technically five books.) Kushiel's Dart is kind of long, even for an epic fantasy, is what I'm saying here. I don't think even the best courtesan in the Night Court can sustain a night of passion for nine hours.

I've been mentioning how long it is to people in RL all week, so I thought I'd mention it here just in case somebody missed that part. ^_^

It is also, however, a book I found compulsively readable, in a way not many books are these days. For people not familiar, it's an epic fantasy set in an alternate Late Medieval Europe where the Roman Empire happened differently: Britain is still Celtic, the North is still tribal, and France is [still] ruled by the descendants of Christ and the Magdalen. The main character is Phèdre, who was born into a House of courtesans, and was purchased as a child by a nobleman to be trained as a courtesan and spy.

I experienced it, honestly, as two different books. The first 450 pages is the story of Phèdre growing and training in the city. It wasn't bad - very readable, like I said, the worldbuilding was interesting and I like the characters and was invested in them. But Phèdre doesn't really get much in the way of initiative in the first half of the book, and the plot progression hangs on Delaunay's scheming at court and how Phèdre does her part in it. The problem is, once I thought about Delaunay's intrigue here, it makes no sense whatsoever: the entirety of Phèdre's role is basically for her to figure out which nobleman is secretly answering to another nobleman, so he can use nobleman #1 to send a secret message to nobleman #2 that he wants to meet with him (after using nobleman #3 to figure out when the best time to send the message would be). OK so far. But then, in response to the message, nobleman #2 sends his liveried carriage to pick up Delaunay and company at his front door and everybody gossips for weeks. If there was no reason to be secretive about it all, it seems like there would have been simpler ways to set up the meeting than training a courtesan for years to spy for you??? You could maybe just send someone with a letter???

So yeah. Alas, I have not yet found the fantasy of court intrigue where the court intrigue really works for me. (Except Argylle, but that's because everybody in Argylle is blatantly, realistically incompetent at it and all the Xanatos schemes fall apart rapidly against the reality of human folly.)

The other thing about the first half of the book is that it is full of Doom. Doomful Doomy Doom. Every time something good happens to her, she comments about how she wishes she had treasured it better, knowing that terrible things were to come. It is full of portents and omens and foreshadowing and all of them are made of Doom. I spent the whole first half of the book in a torment of anxiety as to what the doomful thing would actually be and when it would happen and how bad it would be. Some people like books like that but these days I'm not really in it for the anxiety.

And then at just about the halfway point the Foreshadowed Bad Thing happens, which leads directly into the Rape And Despair Section re: previous post, which possibly not coincidentally is just about when I stopped reading for several days and didn't particularly want to start again.

However! After that, things start picking up. Phèdre starts making active choices about things other than How To Survive And Please The People That Control Every Aspect Of Your Life, and despite the fact that plotty things are happening everywhere and the stakes are very high and the odds are very low, the aura of doom disappears. (The point at which she has what she acknowledges as the first fully consensual sex of her life really is a turning point in the book; after that, a lot of bad and scary stuff still happens, but everything is lighter and brighter and Phèdre is blooming out into herself and healing.)

(And I want to think that was intentional, but I'm not sure the author actually realizes just how crappy Phèdre's life was before the doomy thing happened and how messed up she was by, you know, spending her life as a sex slave; later on, Phèdre still thinks back on it as a golden era.)

Anyway, I really actively enjoyed the second half of the book, A++ would read another 900 pages of that, although tbh probably not the 1500 pages that is the next two volumes, at least not right away. But if the whole book was like the last half, or if the first half was about 350 pages shorter it would probably be getting a definite place on my "permanent favorites" shelf but tbh if I ever re-read I would probably start the re-read after the doomy thing happened.

But, of course, as everyone who has heard of this book knows, nobody cares about that because it is also an EROTIC fantasy full of KINKY PORN.

....except it really, really isn't.

Like, there are some sex scenes in it? Two or three of them rise to the level of mildly explicit rather than softcore or fade-to-black. And a few of them involve some fairly hardcore BDSM stuff, by mundane standards. But in terms of kinky-sex-per-page ratio, you're better off reading, like, Fahfrd and the Gray Mouser or something. They usually manage at least a couple kinky sex scenes per hundred-page novella, usually involving at least rat-girls or the Goddess of Pain in person, or something.

I wanted to say "Maybe if I'd read this book back when it first came out, before I knew about fanfic, I would have thought it was the most risque thing ever" except I realized it was copyright 2001, and I'm pretty sure I was already reading Harry Potter smut by the time it was out in paperback, so it still would've been too late. And by AO3 standards I doubt I would even give it the E for explicit for the sex scenes. In the second half of the book, I don't think there are *any* sex scenes that aren't fade to black. (It would get the major character death warning, the noncon warning, the extreme violence warning, and a provisional underage warning, though.)

So, I suspect it gets the erotica label because the main character is a trained courtesan, and more than that, she's a trained courtesan who specializes in taking pain. So yeah, sex comes up fairly often, and so does sadism and masochism.

But also, it's sex-positive, through-and-through: wanted sex is never treated as anything other than valuable and precious and the idea that people should be able to consent to the sex they want, and avoid the sex they don't want, is fundamental to the characters' worldview. Which is why, despite the fact nearly all the explicit sex is either transactional or outright violent rape, I wouldn't call it rape-y.

And the sex that's in it is well-done - I'm not complaining about the fade-to-black scenes or the fact that it doesn't go into great detail about all of her assignations or the fact that a lot of the sex scenes seem like she's just going through the motions after awhile; it absolutely makes sense for Phèdre's character that it's done that way, and it works well. But if you were in it for the smexy kinky porn, it would be disappointing.

Also, in terms of the kinkiness, I paused reading right after the first scene with Melisande, which was supposed to be the pinnacle of all unspeakable desires fulfilled, so that I could go help my friend take pictures of her hair for a guy on the internet who was willing to pay over a thousand dollars to videotape himself cutting it.

That kind of put the Night Court in the book in perspective.

Because, for a country that's supposed to be built on the religious commandment "Love As Thou Wilt," their sexual mores, gender expectations, and kinship structure look an awful lot like late-medieval France, except with sacred prostitutes (but only for the very rich). And their idea of what constitutes sex and kink is pretty unimaginative. By which I mean that, for all that sexual freedom is given lip service, everybody is expected to make a monogamous heterosexual marriage, with the woman inferior to the man and a virgin when married, and even fairly mild kink is scandalous and secret. Attractive = young, slender, pale-skinned, long smooth hair, and that's it. And their magical secret of great sex for which they are legendary seems to be basically "fluttery touches, oral sex, penetration, aftercare". Yawn. (What I am saying is, if you want expertise in sexual pleasure, read Queen of Spades or In which it turns out that Radek Zelenka is a sex god, don't bother working your way through trois milles joies.)

This is all pointed out really obviously when they get to Dalriada and find a matrilineal society that really *does* practice "love as thou wilt". And yet even in the middle of Dalriada, none of the Angeline characters seem to think very hard about just how hypocritical their kinship setup is. (I'm super-glad we got a matrilineal society where paternity is irrelevant and thus so is monogamy, fantasy needs WAY more of those. If only that had been the hegemonic society and not the barbarians on the fringe. The Britons in general were great.)

Yeah, bisexuality is taken for granted, which is nice, except that you still have to marry heterosexually and make heirs if you don't want to be disowned. And also all the gays die tragically after pining a lot and the lesbian love interest is evil. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

And, okay, Phèdre is speshul because she is the first anguisette for three generations. That means somebody who has an angelically-granted power of mashochism. I honestly expected this to involve some sort of thaumaturgy or spiritual power. But no. Phedre is just the only natural masochist in the entire world, apparently. (There are other courtesans who specialize in pain, but apparently they are conditioned to it from childhood and it's not "real", like Phèdre's is.)

Yeah. One "real" masochist in the entire world. A world where there is an entire country famous for its sexy sadists. A world where religious penance involves ecstatic flagellation. But the master tattooist who specializes in sex workers has seriously never met anyone who gets off on it before.

¯\_(ツ)_/¯ ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

And as a result of that, I also wasn't super-happy with the way Phèdre's masochism was handled. There's an ongoing thread that there are certain jobs only she can do because she has a special ability to withstand torture, and that just doesn't fit with how I understand how that works. Being experienced with pain and knowing how to handle it helps with torture, sure, but that's not the same thing. And in most of the later torture scenes she really is just bearing the pain, there's no sexual element at all.

Also someone really needs to teach her what safewords are actually for.

And the "only masochist in the world" thing really bothered me in the rape-and-despair section. In a lot of ways I really liked the depiction of her emotional response to that situation, the guilt and despair and determination and the little bits of joy and the guilt over the joy and the anger under everything; I thought it was well done, for all that I didn't exactly enjoy reading it. But I could have really done without the repeated statement that Phèdre was the ONLY woman to EVER orgasm during rape because no woman would EVER respond that way unless they had a god's curse on them. Great message to insert into your sex-positive fantasy.

That's also the point where I started worrying about what Phèdre did for birth control. Because I would have been fine if it was just never mentioned at all; we don't need all the details. Except there's a scene where she's reflecting on the fact that if the barbarian king's wife hadn't died in childbirth less than a year after they marries, maybe none of this would have happened - and she has that thought while he is fucking her, and yet never stops to think about whether that might be something she needs to worry about. Wondering about it kept distracting me after that, especially given the long history of intentionally knocking up slave women ASAP because you can't run with a baby. And then there's another character who gets pregnant within a week of trying, later in the book, and Phèdre still never applies the question to herself. (Even a quick note about how the children of Elua have ways of shutting that whole thing down would have been enough that it stopped distracting me.)

I also kind of want to talk about what the book does with the Prince of Gypsies stereotype and erasing the Jews and replacing them with persecuted Christians, but I don't really know what I want to say about it.

Anyway, it gets a solid four stars for "If you like this sort of thing, it is the sort of thing you will like," and I like this sort of thing enough that it would be going on my keep shelf, except that instead the whole trilogy is being loaned on my recommendation to my friend with the hair who actively seeks out 900-page-per-volume fantasy series, and I will temporarily (?) get that foot of shelf space back \o/

ETA: Also, I am saddened and surprised there are so few Kushiel AUs on AO3 (not surprised that most of them are Sherlock, though.) And remain convinced that *someone* who wrote for Supernatural was a Kushiel fan because Castiel's origin story being "we can't name him Cassiel that would be too obvious" just kept getting more obvious as I went...