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When I mentioned that I loved Jacqueline Carey's Santa Olivia, two different friends suggested I try out the Kushiel's Legacy series. I'd heard of them before, at a Wiscon kink panel where I remember somebody disliking some aspect of them, which is part of why I'd never read them. But with recommendations from friends, I went to the library and picked up the first book. Then the second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, and eighth. I had to pause in the middle to read Saints Astray, which came in on interlibrary loan, and there was another pause at the end as I had to wait for the ninth book to arrive, also on interlibrary loan.

The Kushiel's Legacy series is arranged as three trilogies: Kushiel's Dart, Kushiel's Chosen, and Kushiel's Avatar about Phedre no Delauney; Kushiel's Scion, Kushiel's Justice, and Kushiel's Mercy about Imriel de la Courcel no Montreve; and Naamah's Kiss, Naamah's Curse, and Naamah's Blessing about Moirin of the Maghuin Dhonn.

One of the things I loved about these books is that Carey doesn't even pretend her fantasy world isn't Europe; the maps at the front of each book are clearly Europe, complete with Europe's political boundaries.

The center of the story is Terre d'Ange (read: France), which was founded by Elua and his companions. Elua was born from the blood of Yeshua (read: Jesus) and the tears of the Magdalene; his companions are various angels who chose to go with him and eventually spawned the people of Terre d'Ange. Elua left his people with a single instruction, his blessed precept: love as thou wilt.

The first trilogy takes us from Phedre's parents selling her to the Night Court (think sacred brothels - I also quite enjoyed Carey's theology) to her adoption by Anafiel Delauney and subsequent teaching in the arts of covertcy (read: how to be a spy) to her saving both the kingdom and various friends and acquaintances. What makes Phedre special is that she's an anguissette, or someone whose inherent nature is to find pleasure in pain. There are a couple of other throughlines to the story. First, Delauney learned from/alongside Melisande Shahrizai. As a descendent from the line of Kushiel, the one of Elua's companions who administers justice, she is quite skilled in causing pain for pleasure. Melisande is the person who really gets to Phedre, but her treachery eventually ends in all kinds of catastrophe, including the near destruction of Terre d'Ange. She eventually has a child, who Phedre has to rescue in the third book. Secondly, as Phedre becomes more and more sought out as a courtesan, Delauney hires a bodyguard for her. He chooses a member of the Cassiline Brotherhood. Cassiel was the companion of Elua who chose not to father children, but rather stayed by Elua's side. Cassiline Brothers are therefore celibate and trained to be warrior-protectors. The one Delauney hires is Joscelin, who of course falls in love with Phedre and eventually renounces his vow of celibacy. Thirdly, there is what happens to Phedre's oldest friend Hyacinthe. Hyacinthe is Tsingano (read: Romani) and through a series of adventures and whatnot ends up as the Master of the Straits, who is cursed to be stuck on an island between Terre d'Ange and Alba (read: England). The only way to break the curse is to speak the name of God to compel the angel, so Phedre, of course, ends up retrieving (from the Lost Tribe of Dan, now living in Africa) and holding the name of God.

The second trilogy follows the adventures of Imriel de la Courcel no Montreve, Melisande's son, after Phedre and Joscelin adopt him. He goes to Tiberium (read: Rome) to study, falls in love with his cousin the Dauphine Sidonie, marries a woman of Alban royalty, goes on an adventure to avenge her death, and defeats evil to save Sidonie and the kingdom.

The third trilogy picks up a hundred years later with Moirin, who is the daughter of a woman of the Maghuin Dhonn (I don't know enough about varying ancestral groups of England to know exactly who they're supposed to be) and a priest of Elua. She travels to Terre d'Ange to look for her father, but, of course, immediately falls in with Raphael who uses her Maghuin Dhonn magic to open portals to the spirit world. She also falls in with Queen Jehanne, who was a member of the Night Court before she became the queen. Moirin then becomes the second student of a Chinese physician/teacher of the Tao, and, of course, eventually falls in love with Bao, his first student. They have adventures, get separated and reunited, eventually return to Terre d'Ange, and then set off to the new world in search of Thierry, the Dauphin from the king's first marriage. There, of course, she has to fix the things that have gone wrong with what she was doing with Raphael. Through all of this, she travels to/has adventures in such places as Ch'in (read: China), Bhodistan (read: India), Vralia (read: Russia), and the new world (read: Central and South America).

I loved the first two trilogies. While I was somewhat alarmed by the presence of multiple pages of Dramatis Personae at the beginning of the first book, I enjoyed the court intrigue and the scope of the story. The third trilogy falls apart a little, and I found that I was forcing myself to finish it. Part of the problem is that I missed the characters I'd grown invested in and had a hard time connecting with the new characters, and part of the problem is that while the trilogy is framed with court intrigue, most of the story involves widening the world, and while I approve of including places other than Europe as an ideological position, I found myself tiring of the constant travel and wishing the books would have stayed in one place. There's also a "what these people need is a honky" aspect to Moirin saving the day all over the world.

But let's move on and talk about the reason you're really here: the sex. Having read the books, I'm pretty sure the critique I vaguely remember from Wiscon was about how Phedre's interest in kink is an inborn thing, not a choice. Phedre reacts to pain because she's chosen by the gods for that, and she finds pleasure in all pain, not just the sexy, kinky variety. If you're looking for kink, this probably isn't what you're looking for, and I certainly don't recommend it for those purposes. There is an extremely hot rope bondage scene in book two, but then it stops before the end of the scene and becomes something to advance the plot. Imriel gets significantly hotter sex, and the very best sex scenes in the whole series are in the second book of his trilogy. And then there's Morin's trilogy. When even I start thinking there are too many sex scenes, something has perhaps gone wrong. The large number of largely similar sex scenes is definitely one of the things that made the third trilogy drag on, although I did appreciate that Moirin has meaningful relationships with other women.

If you're into sex positive epic fantasy novels and twists on European history and theology, I definitely recommend at least the first two trilogies. If you're interested in sex scenes and kink, I recommend you find something else to read.
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Ruth Sadelle Alderson

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