Ok, so maybe you hate the idea that EL James is Publishing Weekly’s “Publishing Person of the Year” and are frustrated because she was dubbed one of Barbara Walter’s “10 Most Fascinating People” for 2012, not necessarily because of the subject matter in her 50 Shades trilogy, but in how poorly they were written. (In the sake of full disclosure, I can’t weigh in on the verity of that statement because I have not read the books, nor do I intend to, based on what people I trust have told me.) What I find most interesting, however, is that there seems to be a real hunger for stories that are unabashedly erotic, and I have a feeling that the real reason why the 50 Shades books were so popular is that they were easily accessible to the mainstream not despite of their eroticism but because of it.
Let’s face it – there’s a heckuva lot of bad sex being written out there, and trying to find a gem amongst all the dross can be awfully hard to do – and potentially embarrassing for those of us who have been scared away due to the sensationalism that sexuality suffers under in our contradictory society. So, on this penultimate holiday gimbling of mine, I’d like to give you folks a gift if you want it: the down-low on some wonderfully rich, character driven, expansive, beautifully written fantasy works that have a decidedly erotic edge to them – and they are all from one author: the exquisite and immensely talented Jacqueline Carey. (Enough superlatives for you? Honestly, they aren’t enough…)
I picked up my first Jacqueline Carey novel in an airport bookstore, desperate for something to read on the long flight ahead. I almost didn’t get it because the cover was somewhat suggestive (although not a “bodice buster” by any means) and from experience I have become wary of wasting my time on books that use titillation to grab casual browsers – they usually end up being very weak in story, in writing, in both or more. But I was pleasantly surprised to find from the very first page that Ms. Carey was an excellent writer. By the time I had read the first chapter, I was hooked, and have been an avid fan ever since.
Lest anyone should suppose that I am a cuckoo’s child, got on the wrong side of the blanket by lusty peasant stock and sold into indenture in a shortfallen season, I may say that I am House-born and reared in the Night Court proper, for all the good it did me.
So what is this wonderful book? Kushiel’s Dart. The first in a long, involved but totally gripping fantasy series based in the land of Terre d’Ange, a mythical place (an alternate to our world of the past) where sensuality is prized and whose motto is “Love as thou wilt.” The main character in Kushiel’s Dart, and in the other two volumes in the opening trilogy (Kushiel’s Chosen and Kushiel’s Avatar) is Phèdre nó Delaunay, who was born into the care of the Court of the Night Blooming Flowers. The Night Court consists of 13 distinct houses where various arts of sensuality and seduction are practiced by revered Servants of Naamah – elite ecclesiastical prostitutes. (Naamah was one of eight angelic Companions who accompanied Blessed Elua – born of the blood of the One God and the dust of Mother Earth – as he traveled the world. Naamah prostituted herself in order to provide for Elua and his Companions in his wanderings.)
Little Phèdre is cared for at the Night Court, but was not considered to be eligible to become an adept (apprentice) due to a physical imperfection – a crimson spot in her left eye.
Such a small thing on which to hinge such a fate. Nothing more than a mote, a fleck, a mere speck of color. If it had been any other hue, perhaps, it would have been a different story. My eyes, when they settled, were that color the poets call bistre, a deep and lustrous darkness, like a forest pool under the shade of ancient oaks. Outside Terre d’Ange, perhaps, one might call it brown, but the language spoke outside our nation’s bounds is a pitiful thing when it comes to describing beauty. Bistre, then, rich and liquid-dark; save for the left eye, where in the iris that ringed the black pupil, a fleck of color shone.
It is not until she is found to be a rare anguissette – one who finds true pleasure in pain – and is brought to the attention of poet and enigmatic nobleman Anafiel Delaunay, that this mote is declared to mark her as the chosen of Companion Kushiel . Intrigued, Delaunay purchases Phèdre’s bond (at an outrageously high price), and when she reaches aged 10, she leaves the Night Court to begin tutelage with the master of knowledge and hidden intrigue.
From this beginning spins a tale that spans decades, continents, and many dangers and challenges. I don’t want to go into deeper detail (even though I could go into LOTS more detail!) because I hope your interest is piqued with just this briefest glimpse into the start of a glorious story. But what I do want to share is this: these books – not only the Phèdre Trilogy, but also the Imriel Trilogy (and the Moirin Trilogy, a separate tale which takes place a century after the other books) are luscious, sensuous, exciting and, when appropriate, incredibly intimate. What they are not is trite, hyped or full of gratuitous sex. Emotions run deep and strong in Jacqueline Carey’s books, but they are not contrived – they flow beautifully from the characters and from the situations in which the characters find themselves. The sex can be graphic and occasionally quite edgy, but it is never, ever frivolous or sensationalized.
If historical fantasy is not your area of interest, Jacqueline Carey also has two books set in our world (almost) and our time (almost), but still with a decidedly otherworldly aspect (and yes, an erotic aspect, as well): Santa Olivia and Saints Astray. These books follow Lupe, a child who is the product of a brief liaison between a young woman in occupied Texas and a genetically engineered soldier on the run from the military that developed him. Or, if you’d rather get even deeper into epic fiction, she offers The Sundering duology: Banewrecker and Godslayer. These two books are more on the lines of epic fantasy, with gods and elves and epic heroes, but they take the concept of good vs evil and turn it inside out. The Sundering works are beautifully sensual and haunting. (Her latest book, Dark Currents, is the start of a new series incorporating an eldritch community; I have just started reading this book – watch for my review here on LitStack!)
In other words, Jacqueline Carey’s works are everything that the 50 Shades books are, and also everything they are not: well written, intelligent and incredibly entertaining from start to finish. No mommy porn here, but books written for adults with adult sensibilities. And they are, in a word, beautiful.
So there you go – my holiday gift to you. Enjoy!