By Olivia Dalby
If you want to imagine a mix between the A Song of Fire and Ice series and 50 Shades of Grey, you might get a vague idea of a brutal, political, erotic mess. But something along these lines does exist—and there’s nothing else like it. Opening with Kushiel’s Dart in 2001 and followed by eight books published up through 2011, Jacqueline Carey’s doorstopper series is ambitious to say the least: three trilogies, roughly eight hundred pages per book, following a multi-layered plot that spans decades while tackling feminist and queer issues. It’s a beast in its own right.
The full nine books make up Kushiel’s Legacy, which is set in an altered version of our own history, starting in a time comparable to the Renaissance. The center of activity happens in Terre D’Ange, a land founded by a heretic and eight fallen angels as his companions. The country is populated with their descendants, each with a drop of angel’s blood and impossible beauty, bound by one commandment: love as thou wilt.
The setting is one of the defining features of the series, and Carey’s world building is intense—the characters will touch just about every corner of the Earth, and each place is carefully thought through to compensate for the changes made to history (such as internal fall of the Roman empire, or the absence of Christianity as we know it), and all the cultural parallels are handled respectfully with an impressive attention to detail. Built on the skeleton of our own planet, Carey creates a living, breathing world of its own. For the casual reader, it’s easy enough to believe in it as its own world, and for any history lovers, the changes are thought provoking and more than a little entertaining.
The characters are handled with equal care, especially the protagonist of the first trilogy, Phèdre. It’s difficult to reduce her character to just a few sentences, but she’s unlike any other narrator I’ve experienced. She’s the chosen one, but spins every trope on its head. First off, she’s a sex worker, and a revered one at that. It’s a sacred profession, and she’s a holy masochist personally chosen and protected by one of the highest figures in her religion. On top of that, Phèdre is a polyamorous bisexual who doesn’t limit the relationships she involves herself with, from her closest friends to her lifelong enemies. She takes the pious prostitute trope to a different level.
By the end, we’ve experienced almost forty years of her life and watched her grow from an abandoned girl, to a rash young woman, and then finally a mature, beloved figure in her community. After all the women—especially the sex workers—who exist in fiction mostly as jokes or objects to be killed, it’s refreshing, maybe cathartic, to watch one get a happy conclusion, inspire those around her, save the world, and at the end of the day, be a genuinely good person who believes in the power of love.
I know—you want to say parts of this are cliché. It would be, if handled by a lesser writer.
It’s worth noting that the series has a hard R-rating still on it. Throughout the series, there are several instances of rape, torture, and death, enough to where it could feel like it’s dipping into the unnecessary grimness that can lead to an apathetic audience. What sets it apart is that it’s not treated like a background event. Instead, it’s told through the eyes of the victims and it goes through the healing and coping process. It’s never misery for the sake of misery; it has an impact on the narrative and character growth, and it’s never so overdone that it loses the shock it deserves.
The plot is painfully intricate and woven seamlessly across nine books, featuring a diverse, thoughtful cast, a blend of mythology that lends itself to some of the most memorable worldbuilding in fiction, and unabashedly vivid prose. If this at all sounds like your thing and you have a high tolerance for a slow build, the first book, Kushiel’s Dart, is well worth checking out, and it’s an easy find on Amazon and/or in a used bookstore.