Kushiel's Avatar, by Jacqueline Carey (Tor, 2003)

“Once before, my fears had been made manifest in dreams, although it took a trained adept of Gentian House to enable me to see them — and they had proven horribly well-grounded that time. This time, I remembered. I had awoken in tears, and I remembered. An old blind woman’s words and a shudder in my soul warned me that a decade of grace was coming to an end.”
— Jacqueline Carey, Kushiel’s Avatar

After ten years of much-deserved, hard-won peace, the legendary courtesan, comtesse and anguisette, Phèdre nó Delauney de Montrève finds the past catching up to her, and she understands all too well that her life is about to change, and not necessarily for the better. For ten years, she’s been searching for a way to free her childhood friend, Hyacinthe, Prince of Travellers, from his magically-imposed cursed existence as the immortal Master of the Straits. Ten years spent hunting through ancient stories, researching the legends of the Yeshuites. Ten years looking for the key to ending an age-old curse laid down by the Angel Rahab.

Likewise for ten years, Imriel, the son of Terre D’Ange’s greatest traitor, Melisande Shahrizai de la Courcel, has been missing, while his infamous mother resides in exile. With royal blood in him, and third in line for the D’Angeline throne, Imriel could be a great leader … or a great pawn, if discovered, but only his mother knows where he is. Until now.

For now, Imriel de la Courcel is missing, and Phèdre’s life is thrown into chaos. For though Melisande has long been her greatest enemy, still does the traitor hold a certain power of persuasion over Phèdre, understanding the needs and ways of Kushiel’s Chosen better than anyone else. Kushiel’s Chosen, selected from birth to bear a most unique gift for accepting pain and pleasure in the same act, submitting to the wicked and the dangerous as very few ever would. Only Melisande could summon Phèdre, despite all the wrongs between them. Only Melisande could charge Phèdre with finding her lost son and returning him before he becomes an ill-used pawn in a game of kings. And should Phèdre do this, Melisande can offer a vital clue towards the ultimate release of Hyacinthe from his prison.

And so the quest begins. At Phèdre’s side always is her consort and companion, the repudiated Casseline warrior-priest, Joscelin Verreuil, who gave up his life’s work to protect and love and serve her. Together, they follow clues and trails far beyond the borders of Terre D’Ange, far beyond anywhere they’ve ever known.

Their quest to rescue Imriel will take them into the stronghold of a madman bent on conquering the world, a madman who exults in pain and degradation and slavery, a man of dangerous passions. And Joscelin must betray Phèdre and their love, and surrender her into the arms of this beast-in-human-form, or all is lost for the world, and for Imriel.

Even if they succeed, their quest to find the Name of God, the only thing that can work against the Angel Rahab and free Hyacinthe for good, will take them into lands never before visited by D’Angelines, and into the heart of a kingdom lost for a thousand years. It’s an impossible, foolish, dangerous task for anyone. But Phèdre nó Delauney, anguisette and Kushiel’s Chosen, plaything of the gods and instrument of their will, might just be the one to defy all the odds, and change the world forever.

Sprawling and epic, Kushiel’s Avatar brings to a close the trilogy of Phèdre nó Delauney, expanding her world and making the stakes both frighteningly high and dangerously personal. This is a plot writ large across the face of the world, taking us from familiar territories to legendary lands. Though the world of Kushiel’s Avatar is superficially an altered fantasy version of our own, it’s also something unique, a world where gods have power, where “Love as thou wilt” rules an entire nation, where magic is a darkly subtle, ever-mysterious force, and where so much of the furthest lands remains an enigma.

One of Jacqueline Carey’s strengths is to reinvent the familiar, making something new while still keeping it identifiable. Many of the countries and lands featured here are idealized, romanticized, fantasized versions of Rennaisance Europe, though in this book she takes us even farther abroad, into analogues for Egypt, Africa, and the Middle East. It’s hard to pin down any one era to unify them all; rather, she’s picked and chosen the best or most intriguing of each place’s history. Arabian harems, Egyptian grandeur, warring Italian city-states, the brutal Nordic region, and the mysteries of deepest, darkest Africa all collide in a richly-imagined tapestry.

Another one of her strengths is the ability to plot on a large scale, daring to take her characters across the weeks and months and years and continents, to play out the drama across entire countries, and to still keep it on such a personal level. While the world might be at stake, Phèdre never forgets that she’s doing it all for the sake of individuals: one lost child and one cursed man. Though she’s a tool of the gods, she never forgets that, ultimately, it’s people who make the difference, people who change the world. Complex plots and vicious conspiracies unfold around her, but though Phèdre was trained as a spy, she does not actively seek to bring down corrupt systems; she’s merely a catalyst. And it’s that attention to character and to the individual level amidst these sprawling plots that kept me reading through this, a 700 page tome.

For therein lies the flaw in this story. It is slow going at first. Kushiel’s Avatar is like a roller coaster. There’s a short uphill stretch, and you need momentum in order to keep going. You can’t read it in drips and drabs, a few pages or a chapter here and there; it needs to be read in long stretches, so that the full scope can be appreciated. It requires dedication; this isn’t a one-night stand like some books, it’s a committment of some length. Furthermore, I don’t recommend reading this before reading Kushiel’s Dart and Kushiel’s Chosen, as the events in this all stem from things happening in the first two books in the trilogy. As the capstone to the trilogy, it’s perfect, tying up as many loose ends as anyone can reasonably expect, while leaving the door open a crack for further tales set in the same setting or with the same characters.

Lush, exotic, even erotic, Kushiel’s Avatar is an exploration into a world of magics and mysteries. It alternates between being a romantic fantasy and an epic tale of passion and redemption, bringing the tale of Phèdre nó Delauney to a fitting close … for now.

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