In 2001, Jacqueline Carey's debut novel was published - an impressive 700-page tome with a half-naked woman on the cover. But what is written inside on the book jacket might give a prospective reader the wrong idea:
Phèdre nó Delaunay is a young woman who was born with a scarlet mote in her left eye. Sold into indentured servitude as a child, her bond is purchased by a nobleman who recognises who and what she is: one pricked by Kushiel's Dart, chosen to forever experience pain and pleasure as one...She is almost as talented a spy as she is courtesan.
Or it might not. Phèdre, the heroine, certainly is a talented courtesan and spy who likes it best when she experiences pleasure and pain together. But anyone who is ready to dismiss Carey's work as a long-winded sex romp with a thin veneer of plot to overshadow the erotica might be pleasantly surprised.
Phèdre's Trilogy of the Kushiel's Legacy series is an epic adventure that is intricately plotted, beautifully decorated and richly imagined. It is cleverly disguised by the cover.
Literally translated, Terre d'Ange means 'Land of the Angels', and in the context of the story it is literally taken. Terre d'Ange is a land of unsurpassed beauty populated by a people who are equally beautiful, if not a little vain for it.
They worship Blessed Elua - a Jesus-like figure and the grandson of the One God - and his Companions - angels that the One God sent to retrieve Elua and return him to Heaven, but who then turned their backs on the One God and followed Elua instead.
Elua was a wanderer and a proponent of what we might label 'free love'. Elua calls it 'Love as Thou Wilt'. As a result, Terre d'Ange is populated with the descendants of Elua and his Companions, who fornicated freely with the common-folk of the land during its prehistory.
The world of Kushiel's Legacy is loosely based on a map of our own world. Terre d'Ange is located where you would normally find France. Many of the foreign lands have been dubbed with archaic names or references. Alba is across the straits, and stands in for Great Britain. Of course, Eire would be Ireland. And distant La Serenissima in Caerdicca Unitas is Venice, Italy.
Jacqueline Carey also borrows heavily from European history to create this world. There are frequent references to the Tiberian Empire (Roman) and the Ancient Hellenes (Greeks).
Elua's Companions were Naamah, Anael, Azza, Shemhazai, Camael, Cassiel, Eisheth and Kushiel; and their scions have traits attributed to their angelic bloodlines. Kushiel is known as the Punisher of God. His scions have a touch of cruelty in their blood, and engage in violent pursuits. Cassiel did not father offspring of his own, and instead chose to be Elua's devoted companion and at his side as a protector, come what may. Naamah traded on her body and the favours it granted her for the benefit of Elua; those who follow in her calling are practicing a sacred art. Shemhazai treasured knowledge and his descendants are prone to be scholars. Eisheth spawned healers and artists; Camael, swordsmen. Anael taught his descendents husbandry and farming, and Azza bestowed the gift of navigation.
The Realm of Terre d'Ange
The realm is ruled from the City of Elua by House Courcel. The king is old and ailing, and his only heir is his granddaughter. As he inches closer to death, there are those who would plot to secure the throne by nearly any means rather than see it fall to a young, untried and unwed queen.
The would-be queen, Ysandre de la Courcel, has her own ideas about leadership. Shunning her courtly suitors, she hopes to marry the future Cruarch of nearby Alba, and together rule the two kingdoms in tandem. Ysandre's plans leave the realm wide open to treasonous plots, as opposing noble houses vie for the means to secure the throne for a pure-blood D'Angeline heir, not wanting the royal angelic bloodlines to be sullied by barbarian blood.
The Heroine, the Hero and the Villainess
Phèdre nó Delaunay
Phèdre was raised in indentured servitude in the Night Court, a district in the City of Elua that holds the 13 houses devoted to Naamah, Elua's courtesan companion. Phèdre is unfit to become a Servant of Naamah in the Night Court due to the fleck of scarlet in her left eye, which is seen as an unforgivable flaw. Her marque is purchased by a nobleman, Anafiel Delaunay, who recognises her flaw for what it really is: Kushiel's Dart, the mark of a true anguisette.
In the Night Court she was taught the finer points of being a servant, until her tenth birthday when her training began in earnest. She was then adopted into the household of Delaunay as his pupil, where she studied languages and history and was groomed for a life of covert political intrigue.
Cassiel alone chose to have no descendants, because he believed himself to be eternally damned for turning his back on the One God. For this, the Casseline Brotherhood was founded in his honour. Tradition dictates that families send one son per generation to be reared by the Casselines. Joscelin Verrueil is a Casseline Brother.
As a Casseline, he is sworn to 'serve and protect' the person to whom he is assigned, in his case Phèdre. In her service, his Casseline vows are tested again and again. A Priest of Elua prophesies that Joscelin Verrueil is destined to stand at the crossroads and forever choose the path of Cassiel. For his troubles he is thrown far and wide beyond the boundaries of Terre d'Ange. In the end, he is cast out by the Casseline Brotherhood for his transgressions.
Devastatingly beautiful, Melisande is the most dangerous member of House Shahrizai, and the deadliest traitor Terre d'Ange has ever known. She plots endlessly to overthrow the throne for her own ends, but is always thwarted by Phèdre and Joscelin. As she is warned early on in the series: That which yields is not always weak.
Melisande is a scion of Kushiel (who was once known as the Punisher of God). Cold and calculating, she bears the greatest, most dangerous gift of Kushiel's lineage: she imparts suffering without compassion. To maintain balance in the world, Kushiel's chosen is an anguisette, to bear suffering untold with infinite compassion. The horror of Melisande is that she does not care at all about the lives caught up in her schemes; they do not weigh on her conscience. She schemes solely for the love of the game.
Kushiel's Dart begins with Phèdre telling of her childhood: how she came to be reared in the Night Court and become Anafiel Delaunay's student. Under his tutelage, she and his other student, Alcuin, learn the arts of ‘covertcy’ and languages to aid Delaunay in his game of court intrigue. His plan is for his students to become Servants of Naamah so that they can access areas otherwise barred to him in order to gather intelligence. For this agenda, some of the peerage label him 'the whoremaster of spies'.
As a Servant of Naamah and the only anguisette in living memory, Phèdre makes connections with peers of the realm as she takes assignations at Delaunay's bidding. Delaunay also introduces her to Melisande Shahrizai; their relationship will be epic and violent.
When Delaunay and Alcuin are murdered, Phèdre and her Casseline protector, Joscelin, are abducted and sold into slavery across the border in Skaldia. There they discover a deep-laid plot for a Skaldic invasion of Terre d'Ange with the cooperation of D'Angeline traitors. Phèdre and Joscelin must survive winter in snowy Skaldia and escape to bring news of the plan to the King of Terre d'Ange.
The king dies shortly after their return to the city. The new queen, Ysandre, sends them on a mission to nearby Alba, where the old Cruarch has been overthrown and Drustan mab Necthana, Ysandre's betrothed, is in hiding. Phèdre and Joscelin must help restore Drustan to the Alban throne and beg his aid in defending Terre d'Ange. It is a painfully slow process. By the time they return to Terre d'Ange the Skaldic invasion is in full force and the bulk of the D'Angeline army has retreated to a stronghold.
In a climactic final battle, heroes are made and the realm is saved. Melisande Shahrizai, mastermind of the whole scheme, is taken into custody and sentenced to death for treason. But she escapes before her dawn execution.
At the end of Dart, Phèdre has retired to her inherited country estate with Joscelin. They spend just over a year in quiet happiness, before a friend arrives with a mysterious package. As Chosen begins, Phèdre decides to return to the City of Elua and re-enter the Service of Namaah, believing she will be able to discover the whereabouts of Melisande Shahrizai.
Eventually, Phèdre comes to the conclusion that she must travel to La Serenissima in Caerdicca Unitas to continue her search. Accompanied by Joscelin and her three chevaliers, she sails their, acquaints herself with the ruling Stregazza family and seeks an audience with Prince Benedicte, Queen Ysandre's uncle.
Melisande is found in the most unbelievable place, and upon finding her Phèdre is imprisoned. She is left alone with her thoughts and knowledge of a plot to murder the heirless Ysandre so that Benedicte's son can inherit the throne. Phèdre waits in a desolate island prison cell thinking no one knows her fate. An insane rescue attempt by Joscelin results in her being lost at sea, and there her adventures truly begin.
Phèdre is rescued by pirates, who then hold her for ransom. She is desperate to get back to Terre d'Ange to prevent the murder of her queen. The ransom demand is met, but when the switch is set up the pirates realise they have been duped by the Serenissimans and back out of the deal, taking Phèdre with them. They make for their home of Epidauro, but are pursued. The pirates are then caught up in a storm and blown off course. They finally land on Kriti, from where Phèdre is finally able to send word to Terre d'Ange; while fearing she may be too late.
In the end the pirates come to her aid, returning her to La Serenissima to try to prevent the assassination of Ysandre, who has travelled there to renew diplomatic ties with the new ruler.
There is another epic battle with Joscelin at its centre. Melisande makes to escape again while everyone is distracted, but is detained by Phèdre and the Serenissiman guards. Melisande claims asylum in the Serenissiman temple and escapes justice again.
A thorough search fails to turn up Prince Benedicte's son, heir to the throne. He appears to have well and truly vanished.
Ten years of peace and contentment have passed in the land of Terre d'Ange when Phèdre awakens from a nightmare in which she is sailing away from a child on a lonely isle who is calling out to her. It is Hyacinthe, her childhood friend who is now bound as an apprentice to the Master of the Straits - part of a deal that was struck in Dart to allow the passage of the Alban delegation to aid Terre d'’Ange against the Skaldi. For ten years Phèdre has searched for the key to set Hyacinthe free, to no avail.
A letter arrives from La Serenissima imploring Phèdre to travel to see Melisande on a mysterious matter of grave importance. Feeling that a prophecy is in place, she goes to hear Melisande's request. The boy prince, Benedicte's son, who has been missing for the past ten years, has truly gone missing from his place of hiding. She feels Phèdre is the only one she can trust, invoking Kushiel's name to bind her word.
In exchange for assistance, Melisande offers a map and guide to search for a way to free Hyacinthe. Phèdre accepts the deal and sets off to find out who has discovered the identity and whereabouts of the hidden prince, assuming he has been taken for reasons of revenge or political gain. The truth is unthinkable: he was simply taken in ignorance, along with other D'Angeline children, to be sold as slaves in far-away Carthage.
They follow the trail as far as Khebbel-im-Akkad, where Phèdre is ready to give up the chase. But she is compelled by Blessed Elua to carry on. Phèdre and Joscelin continue into Drujan to retrieve the prince. From here the story takes a disturbing turn1.
With Drujan behind them, they set out on a triumphant march through the exotic lands of Menekhet and Jebe-Barkal in search of the lost Habiru tribe, which, according to fable, holds the key to freeing Hyacinthe from his island prison. As the quest - more than 12 years in the making - draws to its climax, there is much musing on the meaning of love.
In three volumes, over the course of 2,000 pages and more, Phèdre's tale spans decades. It introduces us to unforgettable and complex characters in the intricately woven fabric of Terre d'Ange. Phèdre and Joscelin played their roles and earned their retirement to their country estate in Siovale. But what of the traitor Melisande in her gilded prison in La Serenissima, and her refusal to promise to stay there? What challenges will Ysandre de la Courcel face next in holding her throne against those who are loathe to see a half-barbarian queen sit upon it? What of Imriel, the lost-and-found prince, his childhood stolen, facing a nation that is unwilling to trust him as the product of treason, yet the realm's only pure-blood heir?
Phèdre's story comes to a close, or very nearly, as she drifts into the background. Meanwhile, the intrigues of Terre d'Ange have only just begun.