Kushiel’s Dart by Jacqueline Carey (Fantasy Novel, 2001).
Phedre is a young woman born with a scarlet mote in her left eye. In her culture, this (known as Kushiel’s Dart) signals that she is destined to be a special sort of Sacred Prostitute. But the nobleman who takes her in as an indentured servant has other plans and trains her to be something of a spy–gathering information even as she plies her trade as a very high-class, respected and admired Courtesan in service to the country’s elite.
Her homeland, the troubled kingdom of Terre d’Ange, amounts roughly to France and the low countries in our reality and the time-frame is equivalent to the early Middle Ages. This was Carey’s debut novel, the opening of a trilogy that established her as a best-selling author of erotica-tinged fantasy set in an alternative version of medieval Europe. The author does some striking world-building here. Doing far more than merely changing place names, she creates several well-fleshed out cultures that are somewhat recognizable as variations on France and the surrounding nations, yet are each profoundly different.
Terre d’Ange is a land dominated by a religion that blends a bit of early Christian beliefs with a faith built around pagan sex magic practices. The founding idea is that when Jesus (here still known by his Aramaic name) was crucified his blood mixed with the tears of the grieving Mary Magdalene and the very soil of Mother Earth. From this arose a new prophet, who wandered the ancient world with his own team of followers. They eventually settled in Terre d’Ange, each of these disciples founding one of the nation’s several provinces and all championing the prophet’s new faith. The most basic tenet is one of erotic freedom: Harm no one, but “love as you wilt.”
As such, Christianity has never taken hold in Europe. Known here as Yeshuites (again referring to the Aramaic), they are a (mostly) tolerated minority, as are a version of the gypsies (known here as the Tsingani). Likewise, the surrounding nations and the peoples there all play important parts in this epic tale.
Phedre was trained in courtly airs as well as the talents of the bedchamber (comparable to classic Japanese Geisha instruction). Under her new master’s direction, she further learns to observe, remember and analyze all that surrounds her. In doing so, she learns of a plot that threatens the very existence of her homeland. Treachery and violence follow; love blossoms yet honor and culture, not to mention simple survival complicate her situation.
Her world is full of conflicted and vividly alive characters. Politically reckless poets, murderous courtiers, traitors who turn heroic at the end, freewheeling yet tasteful sexuality, opulent luxury in the face of most people’s struggling poverty, self-sacrifice and selfishness, and a truly Machiavellian (and seductive) female schemer are all on display here.
This book, being the first of three, doesn’t resolve every question raised. But Phedre and her country survive and win out, though at a high cost. This exotic and winning story satisfies the reader on one hand, even as it whets the appetite for the next two volumes in the series. It’s a BIG rich book (900-plus pages) and a back-cover blurb comparing it to Frank Herbert’s SF classic Dune in its epic scale and inventiveness is not off the mark, in my opinion.