I first read Kushiel’s Dart when I was too young for it, which was, in fact, the perfect age.
I must have been about 14 when I picked the thick paperback from the shelf at my local Barnes and Noble. Most paperbacks were thick back then—there’s since been a shift to softcover—but this one was impressive even by those standards, clocking in at 901 pages. I bought it because I was a bit of a twerp and wanted people to be impressed by me. I read it, though, because it was amazing. And it still is, almost twenty years later.
This is one of the major books I learned about sex from. It’s also one of the books that inspired my lifelong fascination with religion. If that seems contradictory, then I’m here to tell you it’s not. It’s actually an ideal combination, and I’m grateful, especially since I didn’t have anything resembling a formal education in either.
My family didn’t do sex ed. Neither did my school. In the state-mandated Health classes I was given vague instructions to “make good choices” and do reports on illegal drugs (most people chose pot. I chose opium). At home, the only instruction I got was from my grandmother, who told me that if a boy tried to kiss me, I should keep my mouth closed. I was very confused; I still am (albeit for other reasons).
It wasn’t that our family was religious. Quite the opposite, in fact. Nobody in our family went to church. There were some vague nods to Catholicism, mostly in the way that my grandmother would yell at us for “taking the lord’s name in vain.” We ignored her; we had no concept of blasphemy, and anyway, she routinely perpetuated a mild hypocrisy by exclaiming, “Jesus H. Christ!” whenever we made a mess. (“It’s different when I say it,” she claimed. “I’m praying. For the strength not to strangle you.”)
Sex and religion. The two things that seemed to be everywhere were the two things I knew least about, and also the two things that nobody was going to explain.
Except Jacqueline Carey.
Kushiel’s Dart tells the story of Phèdre, a girl raised to be a holy courtesan. The religion of Terre d’Ange holds sex work in high and holy esteem, since their patron deity Elua is said to have depended upon the support of his follower and sex worker Naamah in order to survive during his time on earth. This tradition has given rise to many great houses in various schools of sex work, as well as unaffiliated or private courtesans as well. Phèdre is brought up independent of the houses, but she owes her allegiance to Kushiel, the angel-patron of the house that teaches both pleasure and pain (aka, BDSM). She’s also raised to be a subtle political agent, a spy for and protector of the crown by Anafiel Delaunay, her…
And here we see the first instance of friction with our own world. What words do we have for what Delaunay is to Phèdre? He’s not her pimp, and he’s not her madam. Those terms are highly gendered and have a long history of abusive connotations, but what other words do we have? And for that matter, what words do we have for sex workers? Courtesan is moderately more respectful than prostitute, but it imparts respect because of the wealth and power of the clients, not the dignity and skill of the person performing the work.
Kushiel’s Dart provides in-world answers to these questions. Phèdre is a student and then an adept of the Night Court, and Delaunay is her guardian. I’ll talk more about Delaunay’s role later, because I want to focus on how amazing it is to describe a sex worker as adept. Financial, political, and religious authority belonged to skilled courtesans outright. In Terre d’Ange, there are sex workers so talented that they become tutors and performers. Their knowledge has a canon, and their profession a level of respect that we afford in this world to professors—and priests.
Phèdre provides both pleasure and confession, shouldering the burden of her clients’ secrets both erotic and mundane. Carey makes clear that it is work, but also demonstrates how both participants in the relationship have respect and deference for one another. Her clients as humbly for permission to see her again, knowing that she has the right to refuse them, and also the right to refuse any act at any time. Her signale, her safe word, is sacred. Literally. Even the greatest villain of the series obeys it and stops when she asks.
That’s what consent should look like. For everyone. No matter what the scenario, all participants should have—not just respect—but power. That kind of power was rare in 90s fiction, which otherwise focused on swords and sorcery. Those physical abilities and supernatural gifts were not things I had. But then there was Phèdre. She knew nothing of swords or spells, and she had no soldiers or castles. Her supernatural gift was pleasure, and her power was the endurance of pain. In the first book, that power saves her people from an army. In the subsequent novels, her power—the power of a queer sex worker—commands nations and elements, and contains the power of God. As much as I also wished I could take a sword to my problems and the people causing them, the idea that enjoyment and endurance could be a source of strength was an amazing comfort. And the idea that I could be myself? Well…!
Pansexuality and asexuality and queerness. Kink. Polyamory. Like sex work, they’re categories of stigmatized desire. Kushiel’s Dart places those desires on the same spectrum as religious longing, or at least acknowledges that those spectrums intersect. All that longing for spiritual fulfillment, for connection, for love—in Terre d’Ange, that’s the same as longing for physical and emotional fulfillment, connection, and love with other humans.
For someone who grew up hearing on the news and from classmates that god hates gays, that was revolutionary. In Terre d’Ange, god didn’t just tolerate gays. He was present in all the acts and relationships that were sources of shame and fear here on earth.
Because of religion, Phèdre’s queerness and preferences didn’t require an agonizing journey of accepting herself or coming out. Don’t get me wrong, those stories are important too, but it was so powerful to see a world in which queerness was the norm. Terre d’Ange didn’t demand that a queer person do all the work of self-discovery and education and stigma-fighting. Everyone could just…feel.
And not just feel desire. Phèdre’s non-romantic relationship with Hyacinthe is as lovely and touching as her sexual and romantic relationships. Elsewhere in Terre d’Ange, a sect of warrior-monks demonstrates their holy devotion with chastity. For someone who felt unsure of her place and didn’t know what to do with any of her curiosity, Terre d’Ange felt safe, a place where anyone could be whatever they wanted, at whatever pace suited them.
This is not to say that the narratives themselves are safe. There is darkness in them, darkness that I desperately needed to see acknowledged. What happens when sacred order is disrupted, when people don’t treat each other and their interactions as sacred? There are a lot of thorny issues surrounding consent in the books. Phèdre’s entire profession is a matter of dubious consent, given that she did not necessarily choose the work. She was sold and bought for it, raised to it and indebted to it: what choices did she really have?
But what choices did a serf have, a blacksmith, the daughter of a noble house? And for that matter, what choice do many of us Americans have, toiling under the weight of debt and fear of being uninsured? The major difference is that there is no shame in those professions or statuses, whereas we still attach shame to sex work. Phèdre sees her work as her vocation, a source of pride, not shame. Yet she, too, sees an issue with indenture, and uses her power in the later books to end the practice. Her story is not a utopian dream, but a place to start having conversations about how we understand our own values concerning work, sexuality, and consent. How do we understand sex to fit into the larger context of power? And in situations of unequal power and force, how can a victim take back power to become a survivor? How can they decide to shape their own narrative regarding trauma? How do narratives in general change when sex is not a source of shame, but of sacred responsibility?
These are questions that I’m still asking almost 20 years later. I don’t have all the answers. Neither do the books. What they have are possibilities. The Kushiel trilogy gave me possibilities when I was young, and it keeps suggesting new ones each time I come back to it. Its myths are evergreen, and they renew me, too. I look forward to the next 20 years with Phèdre on my shelf, inspiring even more possibilities of a more generous, more loving, and more beautiful world.