Thursday, October 20, 2011

Whips and Chains, Red Hot Pokers, and the Limit of my Fantasy Indulgence

Kushiel's Dart is not Cupid's arrow.  There is no winged, Renaissance, adolescent, cherub shooting a bow with the power of Nerf's foam.  Oh no,  Kushiel is Jacqueline Carey's god of pain and pleasure; he who can make is hurt so good, The God of Boning and he takes to his task like an over zealous nineteen year old at a keg party.  
This will be a very long post…  
I think plot is the most important part of a book; if the story has nothing going for it no matter what the themes or their development, I'm not gonna keep reading.  Kushiel's Dart has plot and a very strong one.  It is however familiar.  What I'm going to be talking about is what I saw as plot head scratchers that, if I'm to be honest, kept me reading.
I have to start by saying I thoroughly enjoyed Kushiel's Dart by Jacqueline Carey.  I'm not saying that because Maria gave it to me as a birthday gift.  (Thanks again.)  I liked it.  I do wish the book started on page three hundred and fifty-six, but still, I enjoyed it.  The story is about Phedre; her life growing up as a whore's unwanted child, her training as a high-end courtesan meant to pleasure royalty, and of getting caught up in a political game in which she and her ethnically ragtag group of friends get to save the kingdom.  (For those who need clarification on the latter, I stopped reading this book around page three hundred and fifty.  When I picked it back up, I struggled to remember who Joscelin was, when I remembered it came to me as 'Oh yeah, The White Ninja.'  That's how I prefer to remember him.  He's basically a standard white knight who can win a fight unless the odds are higher than eight on one or if there is a demigod involved.  Phedre's other friend is an Indian Gypsy.  Of which there seemed to be a lot of 'Indians' in an otherwise re-envisioned Europe.)
Phedre is 'cursed' by Kushiel, a secondary deity in a hierarchy that I never fully grasped, to experience pleasure in pain as well as humiliation, shame and nearly all things 'regular people' would find degrading.  Kushiel's Dart, a scarlet mote in her left eye, and how it compels her to act is the backbone of nearly all of her actions.  Her thoughts are sculpted by her owner.  Phedre is a pseudo-slave until she can save up enough to finish an elaborate tattoo that will earn her freedom, and at least to my mind, considering it's size would greatly mar her beauty.  She is trained to observe: look, listen, think and understand.  She is a hooker-spy to use far less beautiful words than Ms Carey.  
Hooker-spies are awesome.  Phedre's pimp owner--who bore the unofficial title of 'Whoremaster of Spies' I kid you not--was so lucky as to have two; though only Phedre was marked with Kushiel's Dart.  The other hooker spy ( I swear I'd use another term if I knew it) is a boy named Alcuin.  They are both trained as courtesans for damn near all their life up to that point in time.  When they get to the really good stuff, their owner Delaunay strictly forbids them to 'practice' what they have learned with each other.  Marinate on that for a moment….
I'm not going to do any ten-second, vaguely academic internet research, but lets just suppose that teenagers are having sex at a younger age than the past generation, and the generation past that.  Carey tells us that both Alcuin and Phedre are gorgeous and very well skilled at their art (they even had secondary education from an older, legendary now retired hooker) and I'm to believe they didn't do anything?  Really?  Because I didn't believe that, though I did come to see a very interesting possible explanation as to why.
I kept reading.
Phedre, due to Kushiel's Dart, was usually sold through a pre-arranged contract and being into the S&M scene she and Delaunay knew there were those who might get carried away.  There was a 'signale' written into the contract; a safe word that she could speak aloud and everything would stop.  No patron would risk carrying on past the signale as the financial and political recourse was seriously not worth the headache.  I equated the 'signale' to coitus interruptus, or withdrawal, pulling out.  Understand Carey is a very skilled writer and fully made me believe in what it meant to bear Kushiel's Dart: the bearer felt pain and pleasure when, whipped, slapped, embarrassed, or was neatly torn to ribbons by a straight razor, but the person inflicting the pain also felt equal amounts of pleasure.  Remember this is torture-porn; not just torture.  (Actually, it's not pornographic at all.)  I don't understand that concept, but Carey's writing is clear enough that I could go with the narrative.  The person inflicting the, I'll suffice it to say, 'bruises' is enjoying this.  The person holding the whip or 'bruise inflicting instrument' as it were, is quite literary getting off on whatever action is taking place; so again I bring up withdrawal.  I won't regale you with my sex life covering thirty-one years, but with no superficial research in my favor, let me state as a universal absolute: withdrawal, 'signale'… That doesn't work.
I kept reading.
Much like Carey's prose, I loved the world she created.  One of the more intriguing facets was a sexual ambiguity that was wholly embraced by at least the D'Angelines--they are the super arrogant, uber-haughty ethnicity of nearly all the main characters.  It is a radically foreign concept to imagine in our world and maybe one that I didn't fully wrap my head around.  There is a minor 'free love' philosophy in Kushiel's Dart.  Carey's characters state it as 'love as thou wilt' or something to that affect.  Alcuin, the male hooker-spy, was only contracted out to men.  That said his career as a courtesan is very short and Delaunay was possibly using Alcuin to his own best advantage and perhaps not catering to any perceived sexual preference of Alcuin's.  However there is certainly a love interest between Dalaunay and Alcuin.  (Age ain't nothing but a number; 'Love as thou wilt…')  Phedre is more often than not directed to men as well, but there are women.  In so far as I could follow the authors description, as beautiful as Phedre is, Alcuin was the choice pick of the two; at least physically speaking.  If you wanted to beat someone you had to wait your turn with Phedre because Alcuin didn't play that game.  I wasn't bothered by the free love, pick a gender attitude of the D'Angelines, it just left me uncomfortably wondering, wanting to read more.  Which may have been exactly Carey's ploy.  That said, my questions were never answered with anything strong enough to call a cultural definitive.  
I kept reading.

Phedre is marked by Kushiel's Dart.  We are not allowed to forget this.  She is the first such person to be marked in three hundred years i.e. Well out of living memory, that said every D'Angeline noble has a 'pleasure chamber.'  A pleasure chamber is what you think it is: the S&M dungeon replete with every possible implement of 'pleasure' sans the leather with a decor from the wealthiest homes on HGTV.  There hasn't been one like Phedre in three hundred years but everyone is well prepared.  Everyone has a pleasure chamber… just in case.  This is the equivalent of parents today giving their children shields just in case they get in a sword fight at recess.  The D'Angelines are boy scouts if I ever knew one!

I kept reading and was rewarded with the biggest head scratcher of all.  This book is fantasy, so just as there has to be a male badass with a sword, some poor woman has to get raped; right?   There was a moment when rape became a real possibility and little more than a paragraph was dedicated to how one marked with Kushiel's Dart viewed sex without consent: "Love as thou wilt."  Phedre can't help who she is and many times, against her will, she finds pleasure in what other people put her through; 'the body betraying the mind's desires' or something like that.  Rape isn't a comfortable topic for me and I'm not going to go into psychology of a rapist, but if you've been paying attention thus far, or even better, if you've read the book, you'd think Phedre would be near chomping at the bit, as horrible as that sounds in this situation.  When that situation came up in the book Phedre was scared.  She wasn't excited mentally nor physically, and I as a reader was glad of it.  I did think that the reasons given were impossibly weak and undermined all the precepts Carey set down in the nine-hundred page novel about one who is marked with Kushiel's Dart.  No matter my enjoyment of the book or Carey's prose, on principle I should have put the book down after this passage.        

I like Carey's voice.  It sounded like it was being read aloud to me and is very comforting.  I'd be very curious to see where this series goes though I'd need some serious assurances up front concerning certain things, and some time to put between reading Carey's massive works.  I'm not sure this cast has been assembled to save the kingdom before: Hooker-spies, White Ninja's, and fortune telling gypsies.  If you have a reading group and you want to start some lively discussions I don't think it's possible to run out of things to say about Kushiel's Dart.  As for me, I could keep going, but I'm choosing to stop.  

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