The second book of the Phedre trilogy shows our heroine reaping the fruits of her victory in happy rural retreat, a state of affairs that lasts about a chapter before we get to the spoilers. The really big spoilers. Time to find another image…
Okay, you had your warning, spoiler time.
Melisande, the super-sexy villain from Kushiel’s Dart got away clean, and throws down a gauntlet to Phedre. Phedre, for whatever reasons – duty, boredom, lust/love, ego, all of them together – takes it up and returns to the service of Namaah to unpick the plot her nemesis is weaving. Even if it costs her the romantic partnership of Joscelin, the former warrior-monk who’s struggling to reconcile his faith with his love.
Regular readers will have noticed I’m not a big fan of plots that put characters in a situation where there’s nothing for them to do but take little pieces out of each other over and over again. I don’t enjoy the journey and I often have little interest in the destination.
I was surprised therefore at how readable this book was for me. It’s possible this was helped by doing this in a readalong in which everyone else was raging at Phedre and Joscelin; I am genuinely enough of an instinctive contrarian that this might have helped me enjoy it more than I otherwise would. It helps that for most of the book, Phedre’s focus is not Joscelin, it’s finding out the hows and whys of Melisande’s plot, with a side of learning Yeshuaite lore to try and free Hyacinthe.
That said, Kushiel’s Chosen ebbs and flows for me. Phedre’s intrigues in the City of Elua were lively, witty and full of intrigue. Her visit to not-Venice by contrast felt stodgy and formulaic. Her tiff with Joscelin starts to wear on me at that point of the book too, and there’s a big old plot hole in how the investigation goes. It’s something Carey even lampshades; I think she’d have been wiser not to.
The best of this story comes in the last third as Phedre selects from her menu of rash choices. There are some fantasticly dramatic scenes here; her confronting her blood guilt in Kriti (not-Crete) and flirting/negotiating with their nobles are great moments, as too is the confrontations with Melisande, and the final triumphant risky moment that I can’t say too much about for fear of spoilers. Carey’s foremost gift is for great moments filled with great if flawed people; once this book gets into that part of the plot, it’s stormingly good.
How much does that weigh against the earlier Romance drama and convoluted unsatisfying intrigue? I like Kushiel’s Chosen, but I don’t like it as much as I could. The romance choices – fine, that’s just not my thing but it’s done well. Caveat emptor for people on how much personal drama they like. The intrigue though, that gets to me. Phedre and her companions feels unusually stupid here, and I distinctly remember how unhappy I was the first time I realised that. It feels cheap and unnecessarily dramatic. It’s a significant blight on the book.
But I forgive it come the end. Kushiel’s Chosen is the tale of a fun beginning, a murky middle, and a heavyweight ending and as such, the sum outweighs the parts. A worthy successor to a classic.