This book made me start thinking about what fantasy is, what makes something a fantasy book. Is merely setting a book in a world that is not our own, in a vaguely medieval/monarchical setting enough? Do you need magic? Those elements of fantasy? Because at the beginning, I wasn't getting much fantasy out of this fantasy. I was getting plenty else - characters, intrigue, plotting, sex. But not fantasy.
Of course, then the Master of the Straits came along and blew that whole digression out of the water. But if that hadn't been there, the other touches of "fantasy" could equally have been found in what might have been classified as perfectly normal fiction, were it set in our own time and place. Even all the religion, it didn't seem overly fantastical to me.
If Guy Gavriel Kay uses magic to reflect what people in certain places and time periods believed, this is one more step removed from that.
So what is fantasy? Does it need magic?
Anyone want to pipe in?
Because I'm not entirely convinced that just because this is an alternate universe, set in a world that is vaguely reminiscent of the British Isles, just because it's Terre d'Ange and the Skaldi and the Cruithne instead of the Viking and the Picts or Britanni or whatever, that makes it fantasy. It's a continuum, obviously, rather than a binary, but I dislike the idea that books have to slavishly reflect the world just as it is to be shelved in general fiction.
I may be nitpicking here. This digression may not be interesting to anyone but me. So, the book! I really enjoyed it. I found the main character, Phedre, to be interesting and complex. The many sex scenes I found enjoyable, even though I don't share the main character's kink. The turn the story took away from that, just as it might have started to become repetitive, was welcome. The court intrigue took me a little while to get on top of, but was thoroughly engrossing.
This is a damned good fantasy. If you are comfortable with sex and kink in your fantasy. Not, definitely not, for the prudish.
Phedre is dedicated to one of the Houses of the Night Court as a young girl (read: very high end brothels.) But the fleck of red in her eye marks her out as imperfect. At least until someone correctly recognizes it as "Kushiel's Dart," a mark that shows that her own sexual proclivities lie where sex and pain overlap. She is what's called in these books an anguissette.
(But the only one who enjoys pain sexually in three generations of her whole country? Really? I know about the kink scene by rumour more than anything, but I'm pretty sure I know more people who share that kink myself. In this generation. In the circle of people I know.)
At any rate, she is taken on by a former poet and courtier (why he's a former poet is eventually explained), Anafiel Delaunay, who teaches her not only how to use her own nature for pleasure and profit, but how to gather information and analyze political situations. That becomes urgent when he is suddenly betrayed, and Phedre, along with her monk-knight guardian are sold into slavery amongst the Skaldi.
Suddenly, although far from home, Phedre is in the middle of the struggle to save herself, her companion, and her home. And it is to Carey's credit that I was convinced and engrossed all the way through. Phedre is not a fighter, but she is intelligent, resourceful, and creative. The book is also very good at examining levels of consent, particularly in situations where Phedre has no choice.
It's not a particularly fantastical fantasy, but this is an excellent read.