Fantasy in the key of Licorice

February 05, 2004

Last night I finished reading Kushiel's Dart by Jacqueline Carey. It is a great big book, and she has two more with the same characters - the dreaded trilogy of doorstops. I found myself chewing on it, and wanted to say a few words about the novel.

J and I refer to kinky sex as licorice, as in "not everyone likes licorice, but the people who like licorice really like licorice." Phedre, the heroine, is fond of the strong, bitter and salty licorice - she is an anguisette, what we would call a pain bottom. Carey creates an alternate Europe containing a country built on the principle "love as thou wilt" and where a trained courtesan manages to become a crucial catalyst saving the kingdom.

I could not tell what had come first, the character or the world, but the basic setting was intriguing. Imagine that the Christ story had merged not with Horus and not with Platonic dualism but with Bacchus and Isis. Esau, the wandering God, either was the child of Christ and the Magdalene or, in his mythic version, sprung from the earth watered by the blood of Christ and the tears of the Magdalene as she wept for Him. He and his followers reveled, traveled, and finally settled in the South of France where they formed a kingdom. The background alone, and the way she works it up, are almost worth the price of admission.

Within this setting Carey creates a society of oath-bound hedonists. They seek pleasure, they celebrate beauty, but all the characters have sworn one oath or another, all find their choices limited and their desires driven by promises made in the past and constantly renewed in the presence. I am fascinated by oaths, and the chapter I am currently revising hinges in large part on the relationship between oaths and civil society, so this part of Carey was rather to my taste.

Oath-bound hedonism was both the most intriguing and, in retrospect, the most unstable part of her society. She has done a good job imagining and describing the checks and balances of religion, power, culture and custom that keep hedonism from degenerating into egotism, and yet this tension was the point where my suspension of disbelief was most tried. Well, that and the fact that the novel was really set in Boinkistan, that mythical land beloved of erotica authors where disease and unwanted pregnancy never deter or inconvenience the characters as they go about their appointed rounds.

As for the licorice, I do not play in the scene so I can not comment directly; I can only say that Cary's depiction of Phedre's psychology and experiences correspond with some of what I have read about the joy of being a bottom and a pain slut. I would be very curious to see what Eden or Cat have to say about the novel, if they have time for 700 pages of adequate prose. ]

I was struck by Carey's skill at keeping Phedre's assignations, or at least the descriptions of them, closely tied to the plot. The conceit is that she is a sacred prostitute, sworn to the service of Namaah who had paid the way for the Bacchus-God by lying with strangers for money. Beyond that, she is a spy and an intriguer, worming secrets out of people as they relax after beating, cutting or once burning her. Carey mentions the sex, but does not describe it. She does describe the emotional responses to sexual encounters, and the way that these responses shape further actions.

What almost got me to put the book down was not the licorice but the conspiracy. There are a host of characters, many with similar names. All of them are plotting and scheming and playing the game of thrones, all have their desires and alliances, and as Phedre and friends work plots within plots it is very easy for the reader to just plain glaze over. It is in some ways a stereotypically female book, a melodrama of conspiracy, for Carey focuses on interpersonal relationships and on the emotions of her characters - the plot with battles, imprisonments, escapes, magics, and exile is all secondary to the love stories. This is as Tolstoy would have wished it, of course, but the sheer volume of characters and emotions made it hard to keep track. I wondered if this is what goes on in soap operas, or romance novels with 20 characters all revealing secrets to one another?

So, I liked it; it was strange; I am curious to see what Eden and Cat have to say; I will read the next doorstop in the trilogy.

Edit - I would add that the book is not at all like Sam Delaney's Dhalgren, except that I had to stop and think about how it was unlike Dhalgren - the similarities are in the importance of memory, the importance of promises, and the plot role of non-vanilla sexuality.

Edit 2 - Cary, Carey - minor details.

Posted by Red Ted at February 5, 2004 07:46 AM | TrackBack