Jacqueline Carey is in a dead heat with Naomi Novik as my favorite new author to debut in the 21st century. Admittedly, sometimes as a good Presbyterian* I feel like I ought to find Carey’s Kushiel novels heretical, but I just don’t. On the contrary, as a matter of fact. They do more to make me think about my beliefs and their implications than any number of “inspirational” books.
But that’s not why you should read them, nor should you be afraid to read them if you’re not religious, not in the least. You should read them because they’re sexy page-turners set in a richly developed alternate Europe.
The Kushiel books are epic quest fantasies, but with a twist or two. They’re told in first person, for starters, and the heroine/narrator of the first trilogy, Phedre no Delaunay, is a petite, beautiful courtesan/spy who begins her life in indentured servitude rather than the standard prince or wizard. What makes her unique is that she’s been marked by Kushiel, the angel of justice, as something of a divinely anointed masochist. (Which makes a lot more sense as it plays out in the books than in that bare description.) And over the course of her trilogy, she saves her homeland of Terre d’Ange (France) and ultimately the world through a combination of intelligence, seduction, and capacity for pain. The world is an imaginative twist on our own, with many countries and faiths represented in recognizable but skewed form.
Carey has also written another set of fantasy novels, Banewreaker and Godslayer, designed to be Tolkien told from the side of the bad guys, but they didn’t engage me in the same way as the Kushiel series--the voice is more distant and less engaging, somehow. And she’s recently begun a new Kushiel trilogy narrated by Phedre’s foster son, which I’m enjoying so far.
The only way to read the series is in order. The first trilogy is:
1. Kushiel’s Dart
2. Kushiel’s Chosen
3. Kushiel's Avatar
The second trilogy so far includes:
1. Kushiel's Scion
2. Kushiel's Justice (due out this summer)
*I’m not sure I actually qualify as a “good” Presbyterian, since I don’t believe in predestination. But I’m a member of the mainline PCUSA, which isn’t as ardently Calvinist as more conservative Presbyterian denominations, and it’s a good compromise church for a lapsed Baptist with an Anglican mindset (thanks to a lifetime of reading CS Lewis) married to a lapsed Catholic.