Liesl and I are in the middle of a reread of the Kushiel series, and the original trilogy continues to be, in its own way, great. I thought I’d written more about it here, but it turns out that I’ve only barely touched on the series.
So I think it’s time to touch on it again: I’ve been complaining recently about heroic motifs in video games, so perhaps I’m being inconsistent in liking a fantasy trilogy this much? Admittedly, there are video games in that vein that I’m very fond of indeed; I just think as a whole this idea of saving the world in games is overdone.
And, indeed, Phèdre does save the world (for some value of “world”), once per volume, just like in most fantasy role-playing game. And there’s a lot of fighting going on. But even in that area, it’s significantly different from most RPGs.
For one thing: in most RPGs, you’re leaving a trail of blood behind you. But Phèdre is rarely the person doing the fighting: she kills somebody in one notable scene in the third book, but beyond that I can’t think offhand of an instance where she fights people physically. She’s on the receiving end of violence rather more often, but that gets critiqued in a rather more subtle way than almost any game I can think of, using her sexuality to disentangle concepts of violence, strength, weakness, and consent.
Of course, she spends a lot of time with Joscelin, and he engages in violence significantly more frequently. But even for him killing is a quite rare act, and one that he doesn’t undertake lightly; contrast this with the constant drone of unthinking death that almost all RPGs serenade you with. (And note the increased narrative weight that Joscelin’s killing gains by its rarity.)
RPGs also have an ever-present leveling up grind; but Phèdre and Joscelin are about as capable halfway through the first book of the trilogy as they’re going to be by the end of it. Admittedly, that’s the way RPGs feel as well with their auto-leveling enemies, but here even the pretense of progression is largely gone. Or at least, the pretense of progression as measured by traditional RPG attributes.
Because there is quite a bit of progression over the course of the book: progression in understanding oneself, progression in understanding others, progression in understanding their relationship, progression in understanding what love means. And that progression of understanding comes with constant, active choice, with a meditation on the nature of choice: this isn’t abstract understanding, this is understanding that is constantly tested and enriched by surrounding circumstances, that comes from looking at the actual people you’re interacting with, observing your reactions, and actively deciding where to go next from that.
Which sounds sterile when I write it, but to me the series comes off as one of the most moving depictions of love that I’ve seen. Not just the first blush of romance, but the love of making a life together, and making a family together. And a family that you actively choose: the third book is all about choice in the context of the relationship between parents and children, and does so in a way as to not remove agency from either side.
Plus: lots of fucking. I’m also grateful to that aspect of the trilogy, but I won’t go into details about that here…
This post has not been revised since publication.