Set in an alternate fantasy world which looks much like perhaps 17th century Europe, Phedre no Delaunay is an indentured servant trained in the arts of the bedchamber as well as espionage. These dual talents, along with her abundant curiosity, will lead her into the depths of a traitorous plot that threatens the nation.
I’ve read this book many, many times and listened to the audiobook a few more times. Recently, I engaged in a read along of this book with several other bloggers (which was magnificent) and I figured it was high time I write a proper review of this most beloved book.
Over the years, I have recommended this book to many people. Some have shied away from it because they believe it to be a romance novel first and foremost. That could not be further from the truth. The story is rich and complex, the characters deep and conflicted, and the setting is full of grace. There’s love & betrayal, for sure, but also sword fights, brilliant escapes, brutal warlords, torture, a good deal of kindness unlooked for, poetry, royalty teetering on the brink of collapse, and so much more. In short, this book is not for the faint of heart.
The culture of Terre D’Ange is one of ‘Love as thou wilt’. Courtesans are not looked upon as scum but rather are cultured, highly trained, educated persons who have goals and lives beyond the bedroom. Phedre’s training started as a young child with simple things, such as learning to serve unobtrusively. As she ages, her training becomes more complex and more adult themes are introduced. Once her indenture is sold to Anafiel Delaunay, her training in espionage, languages, politics, and history begins. Truly, Phedre is often hard pressed to say which she enjoyed more, or which served her better in the trials that were to come.
The world building is simply magnificent in this book. The setting is nearly a character unto itself, affecting the plot and the shaping of our main characters. A whole religion is contained within this fantasy world. Elua walked the world, loving all. His closest followers reflect the various faces of love. Serving Naamah is not a simple exchange of money for sex. It is a sacred calling first and foremost with full consent and deep pleasure for all being the goal. Indeed, the theme of consent runs strong throughout this novel.
Phedre herself is fascinating and she is surrounded by most interesting characters. Once she goes to Anafiel’s house, she is raised side by side with another orphan, Alcuin. Together, they learn the arts of espionage eventually being set to small tasks. However, Anafiel plays his cards close to this chest, not wanting to put his two young charges in danger. Yet betrayal eventually strikes and Phedre finds herself a slave to a foreign warlord. Her only companion during this harrowing time is Joscelin Verreuil. He is trained as a protector in the Cassiline style. Not only is he a magnificent fighter, but he is also a bit of a prude. There is much that Phedre and Joscelin have to learn from each other.
While this book has a fair amount of politics and a large cast, the key players are always set front and center. And don’t be intimidated by the politics. When you truly need to understand some key point, some character will explain it. Primarily, this is Phedre’s story and her role in things. It is through her eyes that we see and understand the higher machinations of rulers and officials.
One can not talk about this book justly without talking about the sex. There are some scenes that are erotic. Some of these scenes are BDSM. Jacqueline Carey doesn’t flinch from describing these scenes in as much detail as she does the politics, or the beauty of a masked ball, or a swift fight scene. She does do a magnificent job of including the emotions, the reasons for engaging in such activities or relationships, and the aftermath. These scenes are small but important windows into the characters. They add to, instead of distract from, the plot. Indeed, there are times when the sex happens off stage because it would not have added to character building or the plot.
When I first read this book, probably in 2002, I thought I had a pretty open mind about relationships and sex. However, this book challenged some of those beliefs, just as the characters themselves are challenged in their beliefs. Reading this book was like holding up a magnifying mirror and taking a good hard look at what I saw there and why I believed certain things were good or bad. In short, this book, and the series, did me the service of pushing my boundaries, as any great novel should do.
The Narration: Anne Flosnik is great for Phedre. She has a cultured voice that ranges in emotion and a little in age. Phedre does a lot of growing in this book. She also has quite a range of voices for the other characters, both male and female. In addition, there are several French and Gaelic words and phrases in this book and Flosnik pulls them off excellently.