Read as Thou Wilt: Kushiel’s Avatar Readalong Part One

I thought I was out. Then they reeled me back in.
I felt the hook when the back of my neck got that hot feeling. That and the look of terror on the bartender’s face. Bookwyrms do that to a soul.
I turned and stared through her, then turned back to the whisky glass.
“We’re doing it. We’re finishing Phèdre’s story,” she said.
“Sounds fun.” I sounded like a liar.
“It will be. So put that glass down, peel your behind off that seat, and come join us. Now.”
“I thought we were done.”
“She’s not done and that means neither are we.” She brought her face close to mine. “This is me asking nicely. I don’t have to.”
“You got the Forager? And the Librarian? And the Geekplace?”
“Whole crew’s back together. Got some new readers too. But we need you. We need someone stupid enough to write thousands of words on minor geeky storytelling details.”
“Anyone ever tell you calling people stupid isn’t how to get them onboard?”
“Then prove you’re not stupid. Join us.”
People tell you never cut a deal with a dragon. People don’t tell you how hard that is to do when the dragon starts talking.
“Sure. I’m in. Why the hell not? Let’s read Kushiel’s Avatar…”

That is not remotely how it happened. When Imyril floated the idea we should finish group-reading Jacqueline Carey’s Phèdre trilogy with Kushiel’s Avatar, I bounced up and down like a badly trained labradoodle. This is one of my favourite trilogies and to finish a reread of it with some excellent bloggers?

Well, here we are.

As ever, Imyril is our tireless facilitator and people who want details on how to join us just have to click that link. She is also the person asking the questions in week one and since she has given us questions, let’s see what I have in the way of answers…

1 – The world has changed since we first joined Phèdre in the City of Elua. Any thoughts on the evolutions within the society and politics of nations, Terre d’Ange or the Night Court?

Always nice to see a world moving but at the same time, not the main part of why I’m here. Nice to see the end of the indentured servitude of the Night Courts too.

2 – ‘It is a splendid, terrible tale… but never forget it is real people who live out such tales and bear the price of the telling’ – discuss

There’s something about the whole ‘this isn’t a story” thing that writers love to do so much that really irks me but here, it’s spot on.

It’s spot on because it’s such a perfect response to Hugues fanboying his heart out with zero thought as to his company. And it’s spot on because so much of this series has been about pain. Not just simple physical pain, or the pain of losing someone. But the pain of not being enough, the pain of being at war with yourself the pain of making terrible choices for others and the pain of having the right to choose for yourself taken away. Carey’s handled that part of the trilogy with exquisite delicacy and strength, and putting it front and centre makes all the sense in the world to me.

3 – Over a decade in, Phèdre and Joscelin’s relationship is strong and healthy and complicated – not least by Hyacinthe. Were you surprised by Joscelin’s offer after their visit to the Three Sisters? What did you make of their conversation before and after arrival at La Serenissima?

It’s very Joscelin, innit? Our lad has both a martyr complex and a “not good enough for you” complex. It’s one hell of a mix. To expound more on the latter, I think he’d have that with whoever he was with because clearly there’s something in his psyche constantly pushing him to be better, something that quietly separates everything into perfect and not good enough, but it’s bigger with Phèdre since there’s the whole tension of the sexual dynamic that can be encapsulated thus

That said, I think that hitch in their sexual dynamic is absolutely necessary to their relationship. I think given her life experiences, the need for someone utterly non-sadistic in her life is huge. That part is clearly more important to Phèdre. Does Joscelin know that? I think he does in his head but given that clear desire to be absolutely perfect, his heart can’t quite believe it.

But that’s just part of what makes them such delightfully complex and generally delightful young people.

4 – Do you believe Melisande? (evergreen question)

I think Ysandre’s question sums it up. Do you think Melisande told the whole truth?

I agree with Joscelin and Phèdre that Melisande isn’t lying in what she says. To steal a wonderful line from Pratchett, like many people with no actual morals, she does have standards. Not lying in situations like this is one of them.

But by her standard, omission of the truth isn’t lying.

5 – What was your reaction to Phèdre’s confession at the shrine of Kushiel?

To a certain extent I didn’t even have a reaction because I was swept up in the story and it just felt right.

Engaging my brain… first off, this is my type of fantasy. Otherworldly. Wild. Not our values, yet sincere and with values of love of humanity.

Secondly… poor, poor Phèdre. Wishing you were someone other than your deepest instincts, because that wars with who the other deep parts of you, is the worst place in the world. We’re often told that such wishes are bad things and that we should learn to override them, and celebrate who we mostly deeply are, and to hell with anyone who sees it different. Phèdre’s predicament is a good reminder that it’s not always that simple. That not all deepest instincts are like. Who can blame someone who, after going through many lifetimes worth of trauma, feels that actually she doesn’t want to spend her life going to exotic places, meeting interesting people, and getting absolutely ravaged by them? Violent choice of word very deliberate.

I also like the priest’s reaction, the kindness of offering more than ritual comfort even if he can offer little other than “I know this sucks but hang on in there”. Very human.

6 – How do you feel about Brother Selbert and his assessment of Melisande?

I must confess to being just the eensiest bit skeptical of his general application of Elua’s precept. Taken to its logical extreme, if a serial killer turned up at Brother Selbert’s door going “Help me, brother, the angry mob wants to curtail my love of murder just because they’re afraid of me”, then Selbert’s answer would be:

“Well shit son, that’s not on, let me help you get clear”.

You seeing the problem here, Brother Selbert? You see how the philosophy might be failing the old common sense check?

Let’s leave that alone for a moment to talk about his assessment of Melisande. My first reaction was “naw, dawg’s tripping” – maybe less in that she did it for love of the game and more nobody else did – but after turning it back and forth, I see it. Let’s phrase it as a different question – out of all the people on Team Anti-Phèdre through the first two books, if you’d been able to magically offer them everything they wanted without all the plotting and stuff, who’d say yes and who’d say no? I buy most of them would have said yes and Melisande would have said no. Yes, I am dubious about this idea that things are undertaken solely in one emotion, and once you put desire to do one thing as love aren’t most things, but Melisande is a different beast.

Her actions weren’t means to the end, the means were the end. The action is the juice. Think of her throwing down a gauntlet to Phèdre in book two so she could have an audience and a challenge. People who are doing dodgy shit to get something don’t do that. It’s only people who love the game who do that. So in that respect… yeah, I get it.

But to back to Selbert’s original religious philosophy. If Elua’s precept isn’t guided by any sort of conditions about the exercise of love? If the love of shooting people just to watch them die is as valid as any? Then, well, look… the whole “love as thou wilt” thing is cribbed from Aleister Crowley, strong candidate for greatest edgelord of the pre-internet era, right? I can’t find a confirmation that’s where Carey took it from (she’s ignored the question on reddit AMAs) but it seems very unlikely to be parallel development. Even if it is, it’s still the most comparable real life philosophy. So, if even Crowley gives his precept some conditionals about that not being a free card to just go trampling over other people because that’s your jam, then there should really be some from Elua.

Either Selbert has taken a wildly extremist view of Elua’s precept and is wrong, or that’s really the reading and Elua is a very silly sausage as are those who follow him. Loving killing people should not be a protected form of love. The fact that Melisande’s thing is getting other people to do it on her behalf makes it worse, not better.

The whole thing about Melisande’s love for her son superseding Ysandre’s love for her realm? Fine, that I buy as an intriguingly far out but coherent and not unadmirable piece of ethics. The stuff about Melisande not having violated Elua’s precept? That says more about Selbert and/or the precept than anything else.

7 – There is much consideration of the future. Care to hazard any guesses what lies in store?

Not so much, no. As they wouldn’t really be guesses. However, there was a passage that jumped out at me in the opening pages, that will be guiding how I read this story:

“He was my oldest and dearest friend, the companion of my childhood. Not even my lord Anafiel Delaunay, who took me into his household at the age of ten, who trained me in the arts of covertcy and whose name I bear to this day, had known me so long. What I am, what I became, I owe to my lord Delaunay, who changed with a few words my fatal flaw to a sacred mark, the sign of Kushiel’s Dart. But it was Hyacinthe who knew me first, who was my friend when I was naught but a whore’s unwanted get, an orphan of the Night Court with a scarlet mote in my left eye that made me unfit for Naamah’s Service, that made superstitious countryfolk point and stare and call me names.”

To boil it down – Delaunay gave her worth in the eyes of the world, but Hyacinthe loved her before that ever happened. Both mean the world to her for that but Hyacinthe means a little more. It’ll be interesting to see how much of worth we see in the forthcoming pages.

8 – …how do you pronounce Cruithne?

By looking up how to pronounce the word as Gaelic pronunciation confuses the hell out of me, then following.

Apparently it’s pronounced croo-een-YUH


11 thoughts on “Read as Thou Wilt: Kushiel’s Avatar Readalong Part One

  1. I also reacted like a labradoodle when Imyril announced this! You’re so right that Joscelin has a few complexes going on. I also like that Phèdre points out that Joscelin is not the more rational of the two (specifically referencing when he crawled on the underside of a bridge to try and save her). I like that she tells him that she relies on him and she’d suffer if him and Hyacinthe were traded.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Brilliant opening there, sir! You made me howl! 🤣
    Hmmm, good point about Melisande not thinking of omission as lying … it’s so very difficult to accept that she only wants her son back and doesn’t have another plot up her sleeve at the same time. I’m curious to see how it will all unfold with her.

    Liked by 1 person

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