When I reviewed Kushiel’s Dart, the first book in this series, I was surprised by people who commented saying that this third book was their least favorite. The words “boring”, “disappointing”, and “unrealistic” were used when, to me, the last book in the Phèdre cycle of the Kushiel series was anything but boring or disappointing. Honestly, it was my favorite of the three. As for unrealistic, I feel split between the desire to snark on how “realistic” a fantasy novel could be and the knowledge that the reason this was my favorite was because it touched me in what I felt were the realistic ways various characters dealt with love.
Because yes, it’s a fantasy novel about political intrigue, various pantheons and how they manipulate people (especially their chosen ones, such as Phèdre), and how hideously dark the human soul can go. But at the core of it all is love. The love of lovers, the love between parent and child, the love of a foster parent and child, the love for a mentor, the love for a dear friend, the love of someone who has hurt you but you still feel drawn to, and a sort of Stockholm syndrome love of a captor, the love of the gods that made and try to control you. It’s all in here, and probably more I’m forgetting. And personally, I think it was done well. It’s not treacly or overly simple. The storylines make sense and have been building over the course of two previous books. There is an inherent complexity to the way everything works together that is emotionally satisfying.
The book begins ten years after the second book ended, after ten years of peace that was foretold at the ending of that book. Phèdre learns that Melisande’s son has been kidnapped. For all those who don’t know, Melisande is Phèdre’s formal lover/ Dominant and also betrayer of Phèdre’s country, Terra d’Ange. Since the end of the last book Melisande has been in self-imposed prison, claiming sanctuary at the Temple of Asherat, knowing that if she leaves, she’ll be tried for treason. One might think that Melisande enlisting Phèdre’s help in finding her son, Imriel, is her latest round of cat-and-mouse political intrigue. But one would be wrong. This turns out to be much bigger than the politics of mortal men. Gods are involved in this one. Really screwed up, dark, vicious gods hellbent on creating hell on earth through the precept “ill thoughts, ill words, ill deeds.” These gods moved through evil priests, Skotophagotis, and their chosen ruler, the Mahrkagir.
Phèdre traces Imriel’s disappearance to this far off land and the evil plan being brewed. She concocts a plan for Joscelin to claim asylum and turn her over to the Mahrkagir as his whore and himself as part of this new horrid army. The strain this puts on her and Joscelin’s relationship is immeasurable, especially since Phèdre quickly becomes the Mahrkagir’s favorite concubine. It takes some doing and many months, but Phèdre eventually figures out how to take down this terrible regime from the inside. Once she, the whole zenana (harem), and some news allies made along the way put their plan into action, Phèdre and Joscelin are freed with Imriel to pursue the holy grail of knowledge that she’s been seeking for the last book and a half: how to free her friend Hyacinthe from an ancient curse.
This takes her closer to gods than she ever thought possible, wherein she explores more aspects of love. And during the trek, she and Joscelin grow closer to Imriel. The resolution to all of this felt a little anti-climactic, because you knew it was going to work out, just not how.
All things considered, it had less of Phèdre having a variety of patrons but it had plenty of her steel will, keen wit, and minx-like cunning to make me happy. Plus, I loved the deepening of her relationship with Joscelin, seeing Melisande be human instead of this crazy, larger-than-life mastermind yet still have a sway over Phèdre. All in all, I loved this book the most of the series.