Featured Novel

Kim Wells, Editor

Summer 2003


Summer Pleasures: An Interview and Book Review

Jacqueline Carey

Book Review


It seems that every summer I get to make another confession about myself because of my taste in "fun" novels. I don't want to sound overly defensive, and I actually am glad that I'm grown up enough to admit that I like a well-written "blush-inducer" now and then. Here's my latest confession, then: I am actually a very conservative Romantic at heart when it comes to my own love life. I married, and have been married to for ten years now, the second "serious" (know what I mean, nudge nudge, wink wink) boyfriend I ever had. We aren't the type to go frolicking about in public places-- no airplane bathrooms, parks, back seats of rental cars-- etc. The most adventurous we get is "hotel sex." And we're both quite happy that way. (Now that I've told you way too much information, on with the point.) But in my choice of fantasy/historical romance/fun summer reading, I am, well, a wild woman-- Let's just say I wouldn't want my disapproving old Aunt Victoria to scan the books I just devoured as fast as possible, staying up all night to gobble them down as greedily as I could. (She would not be amused.)

Jacqueline Carey's trilogy about Phèdre no Delaunay, an anguisette from a medieval "sort of like our world" place called Terre d'Ange, is as racy as I get. An anguisette is, to put the simplest terms, a person who literally gains extreme sensual/sexual pleasure and orgasmic release from pain. She is the perfect masochist/submissive because what would have most of us weeping with fear and pain actually makes her weep from pleasure-- physiologically, she feels pain as pleasure with none of the emotional hang-ups that our society has on sex in general and exotic sex in particular. In her world, she is a rarity, touched by a God and valued a king's (or queen's) ransom.

She is trained as an adept in a pleasure-religion and is truly a master of her training. In the first, Kushiel's Dart, we learn her first-person story and travel with her as a young, beautiful woman among a race of angelically beautiful people--their number one religious tenet: "Love as Thou Wilt." Touched by Kushiel, a punisher God, in a religious system based in part on Hebrew/Christian mythology, part Dionysian mythos, and part pure lush invention, Phèdre makes a perfect spy and courtesan, trying to weed out conspiracy, treachery, and betrayal amongst those who share her "unconventional" pleasures. To coin a cliche that still works: "Politics makes strange bedfellows," and when dangerously sated, sometimes those bedfellows talk. This is the idea that spurs this first novel in the trilogy through quest, self-discovery, revenge, murder, war between great nations, and a women so sure of herself she can conquer languages, the cruelest weather and Gods, and sometimes, even herself. It's fantasy-- but while it's rooted in the same archetypal tradition as the Arthurian and Tolkein-esque stories we associate with fantasy, it is also something totally new and different.

Carey's descriptions are lush-- the setting, the food, and the clothing Phèdre wears are all carefully detailed, but not to a minute extent that distracts us from the plot and the characters-- we want to know what she's wearing and eating because it is so interestingly a part of the conflict, and the domestic details round out our image of a fantasy world somehow more vivid than our own. Her characters are well-rounded-- in a world where a shallow "type" might be easy to imagine, Carey's people surprise even themselves with hidden depths.

This is the stuff of pleasure-reading, and yet, the history, adventure, and action are stirring and powerful enough that I've placed all three books on my husband's "to-read" pile. This is not just bodice-ripping romance at the sake of vivid storyline. It's not, in other words, too much of a "chick book" for non-romance or non-fantasy readers to enjoy it. This is intelligent, well-crafted literature, with a strong story and interesting detail.

The falling action of the first novel leads into the conflict of the next, Kushiel's Chosen, where again, Phèdre goes on mythic quest-type adventures, encounters more Gods, loses and gains more friends and lovers, and attempts to find a way to free her best friend from a curse meant for her. She also tangles with her "arch nemesis"-- a woman who is the perfect "S" to Phèdre's "M"-- and one of the few people who Phèdre truly loves (and hates). The adventures in this novel go further afield; we learn more about the mythology and world in which Phèdre lives, learn more about the awesome love and loyalty she inspires in people, and see her almost torn into pieces by her Gods and lovers. It does not suffer from "middle-book" syndrome, where nothing happens that doesn't merely set us up for the next book in the trilogy. While one would probably need to read each book in the series sequentially to truly understand all of the history and actions that have lead us here, each book also stands alone as a satisfying story in itself.

The third, Kushiel's Avatar, wraps up the loose ends that Phèdre has been chasing for 20 years. Again, Phèdre follows her nature, her gods, and her quest on adventures near and far, and her world sometimes looks very much like ours, and sometimes very different. This book takes us into a darker place, sexually and in human nature, than the previous ones-- what is hinted at before sometimes becomes uncomfortably stark in this one. But there is still not so much that the darkness distracts from the story-- it is part of the story, but not the story in itself. We want to get through the "dark night of the soul" with Carey's characters, and the pain is not endlessly dragged out.

The final novel in the trilogy brings us to a satisfying ending-- and even though I truly longed for more, I was ultimately glad that Carey did not carry this story out forever with no closure (unlike another fantasy series I've been reading longer than I care to say which keeps going on and on). Phèdre, and the people she shares her life with (and loves), grows up-- and learns that her own worries are tiny when compared to the love in her life, and the burdens she must bear, while incredibly horrible, will ultimately lead to a lesson her religion teaches but which each person must learn for themselves.

After finishing these books, I've been vaguely dis-satisfied with all the other books I have waiting on my table, wishing that I could learn a little more about this world which has enthralled me in this series, and searching for "similar" stories and writers. I'm not often impressed by bondage fiction just for the sake of the shock value-- it has to have more for me than the mere titillation of a taboo subject. So far, I haven't found anything quite as gripping and intelligent as Carey, although I'm hopeful in a new writer I just noticed on the recommendation of a couple of others I respect-- and who is also named in Carey's "quoted reviews" list-- it's a good sign when writers you already know you like recommend another. (Maybe next summer you'll get a review of her work.)

The trilogy's subject-matter and wide scope could lead to pretentiousness, or to an all-too-vivid explicitness that would take it beyond my tastes, falling out of erotica into porn-- but it does not. Carey's deft writing describes even the most "unconventional" part of an anguisette's romantic predilections with a careful but strong hand. I never got "too much"-- never needed to utter my own signale (the pre-agreed upon "stop" word that keeps a pain-bearer from being hurt more than s/he wishes). But at the same time, it was actually titillating enough to make me want more-- and I learned a fair amount about a community of folks with more adventurous sexual natures than my own. While the books are definitely for mature audiences, they are appropriate for anyone who can handle an "R" rated movie. And these novels are so well-written that I think it is highly possible Carey could challenge the mostly all-male hierarchy of the Fantasy-Adventure genre and have her work become a "classic" that molds that which comes after. I certainly can't wait to read more work by Carey, even when it takes us to another world than Phèdre's. I know my world is forever altered by my visits with her fictional world-- and I am glad of it.


 

Photo of CareyBiography

Jacqueline Carey was born in 1964 in Highland Park, Illinois. After receiving B.A. degrees in psychology and English literature from Lake Forest College, she spent half a year living in London and working in a bookstore, traveling once the work permit expired. Upon returning to the U.S., she embarked on a writing career while working at a local college to provide a steady income and traveling when possible, thus far ranging from Finland to Egypt. She currently lives in western Michigan, where she is a founding member of the oldest Mardi Gras krewe in the state.

Carey won the 2002 Locus Magazine Award for Best First Novel for Kushiel's Dart. Her previous publications include various short stories, essays, a nonfiction book, Angels: Celestial Spirits in Legend and Art, as well as her widely acclaimed Kushiel trilogy. She is currently working on a new stand-alone novel, Elegy for Darkness. To learn more about Jacqueline Carey and her work, visit her website: www.jacquelinecarey.com. For a list of her "dates & tours," click here.

Also, read two recently published author features on Jacqueline online at: http://www.locusmag.com/2002/Issue12/Carey.html and http://www.romantictimes.com/data/cameos/15784.html. To see a multi-media video presentation on Jacqueline and her first novel Kushiel's Dart, go to http://www.bookstreaminc.com/demo/. Click on the red "View a Bookwrap" button and find the Kushiel's Dart Bookwrap in the list.


Our Interview, May 2003


Q: Since our site is both geared towards women writers in general, and feminism in a sort of "side way," (of a third wave nature) I always like to ask questions about the strong women characters in novels like yours-- so the first series of loaded questions are:

Would you call yourself a feminist? Do you think Phèdre is a feminist? If not Phèdre, what about the other women characters in the novel? Have you drawn criticism for your portrayals of strong, yet sometimes non-traditional, women (if yes, what kind)? Is your novel one that you think feminists (and/or just women in general) will (have) respond(ed) well to? If yes, or no, can you relate a story about this issue? Or do you think feminism is totally not the word for your work?

A: I do consider myself a feminist and I think that sensibility informs my work, though not in an overt manner. Story comes first; everything else, including gender politics, takes a back seat. It's hard for me to apply the term 'feminist' to Phèdre or other female characters in the Kushiel books, primarily because it feels anachronistic in a medieval milieu. I'm happy to report that I've received only praise and gratitude for writing strong female characters. No criticism yet on that score! By and large, the response from feminists (and women in general) has been very positive. From men, too, for that matter, but the books deliberately subvert many of the sexist cliches inherent in the genre, which is something feminist readers totally get.

My favorite story comes from my editor, Claire Eddy. She was on the subway at the end of a long day's work. There was an older woman was holding forth to her friend, at great length and considerable volume, about a book she was reading that offered a bold and unexpected vision of female empowerment. Claire tuned out the conversation, convinced it was an Oprah pick or a self-help book-- in short, nothing of professional relevance to a fantasy editor. As she disembarked, the woman fished out the book in question. It was Kushiel's Dart. The train pulled away, leaving Claire on the platform saying, "Wait! Tell me more! I edited that book!"

Q: Did you find it hard to break into the fantasy genre, and do you think your subject matter-- a woman who is both spy and courtesan-- plays well with fantasy audiences, or maybe challenges the nature of fantasy?

A: It's hard to break into any genre! But the archetype of the courtesan-spy-the Mata Hari figure-has venerable roots. In and of itself, it plays well. What's challenging to fantasy audiences is the fact that Phèdre enjoys the role. She's unapologetic in regard to her sexual nature, and doesn't need to be rescued… or redeemed.

Q: What kind of advice can you offer to budding women authors who want to write genre/fantasy (or any other kind of literary effort, really)? Especially to those who struggle with the claim that "genre" fiction is somehow inferior to other work (which is a really terrible attitude a despairingly large amount of academics have).

A: It's a truism: You want to write, write. Write what you love, tell the story you want to tell. Rejection is inevitable; persistence is everything. Writing, both as a profession and a creative endeavor, is difficult. If it's not a labor of love, there's little point to it. I do think the marginalization of genre fiction is easing a bit, at least in the broader picture. There's a sense emerging that perhaps the presence of a plot does not automatically render a book pedestrian; that it's okay to enjoy a good story. Even--gasp!--that writing a tightly-plotted book may be a difficult feat worthy of admiration.

Academia is one of the last bastions of literary snobbery. I would love to see people immersed in it challenge those attitudes and defend well-written genre fiction, but that's an individual choice. For those unwilling to make it, yet yearning to write genre… well, that's what pseudonyms are for.

Q: Having explored your website a bit, it seems like there is a small "underground" following springing out of your work-- is this something you expected? Do you find most people are pretty cool, or does the sometimes erotic nature of your writing attract its share of crazies (and if so, are there any stories you want to relate on that?) This something I'm curious about, because of my website I sometimes get creepy email from lonely people, and I wonder how much people associate your fictional character with you.

A: Honestly, I've been very fortunate. Yes, between the tattoos and the erotic component, I was anticipating that the books would have a certain underground cult appeal, but what's surprised and delighted me is the widespread diversity of my audience. My readers are a far-flung lot, and on the whole, pretty darn cool. Most of them are sweet and funny and smart, and the stories they share with me are a pleasure. To be frank, I did expect more crazies! Not that I'm complaining, mind you.

Q: This is the second summer I've been attracted to books that have a somewhat racy erotic element- and one of the things my review is going to discuss is how "conventional" my own romantic life is, and how fun it is to read a "fantasy" book about a different sort of lifestyle, while still not personally wanting to be as "adventurous." Unlike some other books I've read, where the love scenes tend to get a little too much, yours is very carefully poetic- you don't get too graphic, and yet, it's very sensual (I found myself reading passages aloud to my husband because they were so cool-- and have put the books on his bedside table to read). How do you go about writing this kind of prose? Is it easy, or do you find your old Aunt Hilda (or Queen Victoria) perching on your shoulder with a scowl? (I ask, because even though I'm still slightly embarrassed by this sort of romance, I adore it... which is a bit of a contradiction with my feminist theory training).

A: Guilty pleasures, anyone? <g> Ah, well, many readers have fantasies we don't really want to explore in excruciating depth--but we welcome the chance to ride shotgun while someone else is driving. Phèdre's nature affords that opportunity. I think what makes the love scenes effective without being excessive is a certain amount of restraint. I try to keep the pace consistent. They don't carry any more (or less) weight than other sequences. Time doesn't slow down, the level of description doesn't devolve into unprecedented minutiae. And although they're not overly graphic, the edgy content amplifies the impact. Which is not to say they're easy to write. They're not. Sometimes I have to take a deep breath and a glass of wine to go there. There are passages in Kushiel's Avatar that were especially difficult. While I'm immersed in the process, there are no censors, internal or otherwise. Afterward, I may squirm at the thought of my mother reading it, but if the work is good, I let it stand.

Q: The issue that this interview is appearing with is called autotheory- which is a hybrid of autobiography & critical theory that focuses on the body, and our understandings of power through our experiences as humans with bodies.... I love the part of your novel where you say "that which yields is not always weak" --Michel Foucault would have a lot to say about Phèdre's world, I think. How do you think Phèdre would fit into society today, were she to magically appear in our world? And how about sticking, say, Gloria Steinem into Terre d'Ange? How do you think the "slave/master" archetype fits our struggles in today's gender/political climate?

A: I don't think Phèdre would have any difficulty fitting into contemporary Western society. For all her yielding tendencies, she is, in the end, tremendously willful; and that's a quality we admire. She takes ownership of her own sexual nature. She turns her apparent weaknesses into strengths. As for Gloria Steinem, I suspect she would do just fine in Terre d'Ange! Despite some residual patriarchal tendencies, there's plenty of room for her to maneuver.

As far as the "slave/master" archetype goes, it depends on the context. Within the BDSM (bondage, dominance, sadism, masochism), community, establishing parameters is taken very seriously. Exploring personal boundaries in any forum, sexual or otherwise, requires a tremendous amount of trust. In Terre d'Ange, that's reflected in the idea of consensuality as a sacred tenet. This allowed me to examine issues of desire, will and power and how those play out between individuals; issues which are equally apt today (only without the added deities and epic destinies).

In a broader context of society at large, where unrealized masculine fantasies of dominance continue to cast a pall of violence and abuse, it may be another matter altogether.

Q: Finally, what are you working on that you'd like us to look for in the future? Any plans for movies, or new visits to Phèdre's world? Tell us what you'd like us to know about your plans, and anything we could show our support to....

A: As it happens, I just delivered a new manuscript with the working title Elegy for Darkness. This is a stand-alone in a multiple 3rd-person POV, which was a change after being immersed in Phèdre's voice for so long. It's an epic fantasy in the classic Tolkienesque vein, with one twist: It's a tragedy written from the perspective of the 'minions of the Dark Lord.' In the process, I'm trying to critique elements of the genre, particularly the unquestioning acceptance of dualism. I conceived it as a sort of postmodern Paradise Lost, though hopefully it also reads as a plain old gripping novel. Oh, and it's not sexy in the least. I don't have a publication date yet, but it will be interesting to see how it's received.

After this, I'm considering revisiting Terre d'Ange, though the story, if it continues, will do so with a different protagonist. I've been thinking about it for quite some time. No movie plans in the works, I'm afraid, though many readers enjoy playing the "Casting Game!"


You know you want them. Perfect beach/hammock/nap-a-torium reading....grab some rich chocolate and turn the phone ringer off!

Kushiel's Dart Kushiel's Chosen Kushiel's Avatar

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