My rating: 2 of 5 stars
Fantasy is not a genre that I often read, although some of my all-time favorites fall roughly within the bounds of that territory. Books like Lord of the Rings, Dune, Game of Thrones. When I recently read a critic's column in Salon that extolled the Phèdre trilogy by Jacqueline Carey and compared it to some of those beloved books, I was curious enough to look further at it. One of the points that the critic made was that this series features a strong woman protagonist, somewhat unusual in fantasy, and since I generally enjoy stories featuring strong women characters, this looked like it might be worth my time and I committed to reading it. That turned out to be an unfortunate decision.
So, 934 pages and one precious week of my life later I'm wondering, why? Why did I spend all that time on this book which brought me no pleasure at all? Why didn't I give it up halfway through when I realized that this just wasn't for me?
Phèdre, the protagonist, of this story enjoys physical pain. Whipping her, cutting her gives her earthshaking orgasms. Maybe I enjoy mental BDSM? No, that can't be it. This book definitely didn't give me any orgasms.
I don't know if I can sum up a plot covering 934 pages in a few words but I'll try.
The action takes place in the world of Terre d'Ange, a place modeled on Earth, specifically medieval Europe. The geography described by the author seems to locate Terre d'Ange in France. It is a culture founded by fallen angels who procreated with humans. Thus, the inhabitants are the progeny of those couplings, except for one province, Cassiel, which chose to remain loyal to the commandments of the One God and not commingle with mortals. (Yes, the author took her inspiration from the Jewish Bible, the Christian Old Testament.)
The world is ruled by a monarchy - natch - and as we enter it, this world is bordering on chaos as the old king fades, and it is surrounded by enemies without and beset by traitors within. Phèdre is a child who is sold by her mother to one of the houses which take and train children. She had been born with a red mote in her left eye, which supposedly marks her as one who associates pain with pleasure, and this, for some reason, seems to make her particularly valuable as a courtesan. Apparently, the highborn part-angel, part-human residents of Terre d'Ange really get off on inflicting pain on their sexual partners, and they are willing to pay good money for the chance to do it.
Phèdre's bond is purchased by a nobleman, Anfiel Delaunay, and he takes her into his household when she is ten years old and trains her to be a courtesan, and, incidentally, a spy. A few years later, having completed her training, Delauney essentially begins pimping her out to his fellow highborns, both men and women, and she quickly earns a reputation which makes her very, very popular among this society.
Skipping ahead through interminable repetitions, everything begins falling apart, politically, in the kingdom, as the old king nears death and those who would take his throne circle like vultures. Delauney uncovers a plot against the king and his designated heir and works to thwart it, but then he and all of his household are murdered by the king's enemies. Everyone except Phèdre and her bodyguard who happened to be away at the time.
Phèdre and her bodyguard go to the king's palace seeking refuge but they are betrayed by one of the traitors and sent into slavery among Terre d'Ange's enemies. Eventually, they escape, of course, and start making their way back to the city to warn the new queen of imminent invasion. They face many perils and overcome them all, and so on and so on and so on.
There is A LOT of repetition in this plot and the writer rather clumsily, in my opinion, foreshadows everything that happens so that nothing is ever really a surprise. Moreover, her prose is exceptionally portentous, sometimes hilariously so, and, after a bit, predictably so. Her wordiness knows no bounds. If the book had been edited for repetitious plot devices, not to mention grammar and unnecessary euphemisms (which I suppose are meant to make the practices described sound more poetic?), then it could have been half as long and it might have been a better book.
As for the BDSM parts, they are not erotic at all. In fact, the author writes very matter-of-factly of the various kinds of pain that are inflicted on Phèdre during sex with her many, many partners. These passages are not steamy, arousing, or stimulating in the least. Well, not to me anyway.
Apparently, this series has many devoted fans, to whom I say more power to you and to each his/her own. Far be it from me to denigrate anyone's reading taste, but I don't think I'll be visiting the world of Terre d'Ange again.
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