Kushiel’s Legacy: epic fantasy with a masochistic heroine

An epic fantasy book series with a masochistic sex-worker heroine. Need I say more? I have read Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Legacy series every year for about fifteen years. It is alternative history, and the first two (out of three) trilogies do not contain much magic. Apart from the fact that every single religion is real and protagonist Phèdre can sense and kind of communicate with the deities. Are you hooked yet? I am. So let’s talk about this book series by my all-time-favorite author.

The world of Kushiel’s Legacy

The point in history that Carey changed is key to the story, and to the BDSM elements in it. When Jesus was hanging from the cross, his blood mingled with Mary Magdalene’s tears and produced a child: Elua. This new “deity” was three quarters human and as his grandfather (God) was grieving the loss of his son, Elua was left to wander the earth. He spread his message “love as thou wilt,” (meaning: make love with whomever in whatever way feels right to you) all over the place. Several of God’s angels got inspired by this message and started following him, and they all settled down in France, here called “Terre d’Ange.” The angels reproduced with humans, God did not like this, and at one point he convinced Elua and the angels (then turned into gods) to leave the earth and go to a heaven he created just for them.

One of the angels who followed Elua, was Kushiel: God’s punisher. His thing was that he loved his charges too much and punished them so they could be absolved. Which I think is pretty cute. Now, once every few generations, a child is born with a red pinprick in their iris. These children are god-touched: they are Kushiel’s chosen and called anguisettes. The anguisettes are natural masochists: they experience pain as pleasurable. And this brings us back to our heroine Phèdre. She is brought up in what is basically a brothel. However, in a country where sex is sacred, prostitutes are revered and proud. And they aspire to perfection. As Phèdre has a red mote in her eye (and no-one recognizes it for what it is as no-one has seen an anguisette in generations) she is considered damaged. She still receives education but her chances are rather slim.

Phèdres Trilogy

Until someone does recognize her for an anguisette, and that person turns out to be a very influential, though disgraced, peer of the realm. Delaunay adopts her into his household at age ten and trains her to be a spy and a prostitute. And these tools are exactly what she needs to save the country and humanity time and again. Because of abduction, friendships, and political intrigue, in this first trilogy Phèdre travels most of Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

Kushiel’s Dart

Book cover Kushiel's Dart
Kushiel’s Dart

This first novel tells the story of the young, adventurous Phèdre from her moment of birth until she saves the realm for the first time. To help Delaunay uncover a coup, Phèdre spends time with different patrons so she can get information from them. They tie her up with lace sheets with knots placed in such a way that she almost collapses because of the volume of orgasms (bondage and orgasm play in one!); let her clean their house in French Maid uniforms; there’s impact play; blood play… Oh, and they parade her (wearing nothing but a see-through gown and a collar and leash) at a royal party. In between all this fun, she does uncover the plot, is sold into slavery to a foreign leader and comes back just in time to stop the coup. The life of an anguisette is quite eventful.

Kushiel’s Chosen

Kushiel’s Chosen

In the second book, Phèdre has found a (non-kinky) partner and holds lands and a title, as a thank you for saving the realm. However, this does not stop her from still choosing patrons and playing with them. So consensual non-monogamy works for her, and she is still a sex worker even though there is no financial need anymore. Which I think is great! One of Phèdres former patrons, who happens to be a woman, is still plotting to overthrow the throne. So Phèdre devices a plot of her own to uncover yet another (international) coup. Through her masochism and cleverness, she befriends the right people, plays with the right people, manipulates the right people and keeps her queen on the throne. There are fewer hot scenes in this book than the previous one. However, her cleverness and strength more than make up for the decrease of kinkiness.

Kushiel’s Avatar

Kushiel's Avatar book cover
Kushiel’s Avatar

And then there’s the conclusion to the first trilogy. Phèdre travels farther than ever before, both geographically and in her masochism. She ends up in a country ruled by a truly evil leader. He has abducted women and little boys from most countries and formed a harem out of them. He is also a ruthless sadist to such an extreme that he literally kills, rips women open with metal spiky attachments for his penis, etc. Not a nice guy and he certainly does not believe in consent. But he will meet his match in our masochistic heroine, who needs to use her masochistic powers to let him fall in love with her so she can stop him from taking over the world. As Jacqueline Carey would say: “That which yields is not always weak.”

Imriel’s trilogy

After three books featuring a masochistic heroine, apparently Carey thought it was time to show a nice Dom as well. This second trilogy focusses on Imriel, Phèdres adopted son, who is one of Kushiel’s descendents and therefore has sexual domination in his blood. However, he too experienced the cruelty of the evil sadist in the previous book so has a hard time coming to terms with his more sadistic desires. After the completely non-apologetic masochism in Phèdres trilogy (possible because of the sex positivity of this fantasy world); it’s interesting to read a book from the point of view of a reluctant dominant.

The reasons for his reluctance are quite different from those of most dominants in our society. However, this coming to terms with dominance is something that does not get portrayed often in BDSM fiction. And maybe it should. Not because dominance and sadism are necessarily bad things, but because most dom(me)s have to unlearn this cultural programming before they can fully embrace it.

In conclusion

If you like fantasy and enjoy kinkiness, take the time to read this fantasy series. Despite the somewhat flowery language and the slow start, this series has lots of action; political intrigue; a well-developed and sex positive fictional world; and fascinating characters.

And if my endorsement is not enough: this book series is so well-loved that the internet is full of people getting tattoos based on it (see below). The fans spend lots of time making fan art, doing cosplay, and throwing Phèdre-themed parties. So join the craziness and get yourself some amazing, kinky, fantastical political intrigue.

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