Phèdre is the child of a Servant of Naamah, and was sold by her mother into indentured servitude at Cereus House, oldest of the Court of Night-Blooming Flowers in the City of Elua. A nobleman named Anafiel Delaunay recognised her as an anguissette – one who finds pleasure in pain – and bought her marque. At the age of ten, therefore, Phèdre left Cereus House and joined Delaunay’s household, where she was taught, along with Delaunay’s other pupil, Alcuin, the “arts of covertcy”, along with languages, and other skills.
Later, once entered the service of Naamah (a sort of sacred prostitution), both Alcuin and Phèdre act essentially as spies for Delaunay, although the full extent of his schemes are unknown to his pupils. They do learn, of course, that the King, Ganelon de Courcel, is old, his grand-daughter Ysandre, is young, and treachery threatens their realm of Terre d’Ange.
The first part of the book details Phèdre’s growing up, her friendship with the Tsingano boy, Hyacinthe, and her first encounters with patrons who will pay for an anguissette. It’s very interesting, and Carey gives a lot of detail of her world and the workings of it, as well as rounding and detailing her main characters. The latter part, in which Phèdre and her Cassiline companion Joscelin discover treachery, are sold into slavery in Skaldia and embark on several long, desperate journeys to save their homeland, is more fast-moving, serious in tone, and less concerned with intrigue than with survival.
I first read this some years ago, devoured it in one or two days, and then, for some reason, never bothered to find the other books in the trilogy. Re-reading again I found great pleasure in Carey’s writing, the slightly archaic tone which Phèdre uses, and the world-building. Like Guy Gavriel Kay she doesn’t depart too much in terms of geography from mediaeval Europe, where Terre d’Ange, Phèdre’s homeland, is an analogue for France, Caerdicca Unitas for the Italian city states, Alba for Britain and Skaldia for Germany. The cultures of these lands, however, is a little different from the mediaeval period, of course, since women are powerful in their own right – at least in Terre d’Ange – and sexual mores are free, homosexuality accepted, and courtesans such as Phèdre are respected. There’s a certain sensuousness to the prose, too, delighting in evoking the rich garments worn by the nobles and the food eaten, as well as the sexual encounters. The sex is well-written, though given Phèdre’s proclivities, is certainly not vanilla, and generally seems important to the plot: such scenes don’t overwhelm the book, either, since it is very long, and there is a lot of action.
The characters are delightful. Phèdre is entirely realistic – stubborn, rebellious (as a child), bright and loving, and later very admirable. Her mentor, Delaunay, becomes clearer through the book as Phèdre understands more about him, and her relationships with him and with Alcuin are well-drawn. I also liked her friendship with Hyacinthe, the one person who likes her for who she is, long before she could be of service, and his sacrifice towards the end of the book sets up action for the second, and particularly, the third books in the trilogy. I really liked Joscelin, the celibate Cassiline warrior-priest whom Delaunay contracts to be Phèdre’s Companion (protector), and his difficulty with reconciling his Cassiline training to serve and protect her with the reality of how Phèdre experiences sexual pleasure. Even the minor characters are memorable: Barquiel l’Envers, for example, Ysandre’s uncle, rarely appears but his influence is felt; the men and women of Gunter’s steading; the sailors of admiral Quintilius Rousse’s fleet; and so on. I did also like the way that everyone, even Phèdre’s enemies, are real people, their motivations are understandable (even Melisande Shahrizai’s, who Phèdre both loves and hates), and their actions realistic.
One of the other pleasures of this book is the sexual politics. Women hold office, for example, are not tied to loveless marriages, are free to pursue careers and can inherit peerages and own property. It isn’t realistic of mediaeval France, of course, but it’s nice to read about in fantasy – and although the enlightened views of the D’Angelines are not common to the people of the lands around it, Carey gives realistic reasons for how this has come about. Phèdre is attracted to both men and women, and this is seen as perfectly normal.
In summary, this is a long, involving, historical fantasy with well-rounded characters and believable events, lots of intrigue, politics and action. There’s a bit of sex, of course, but it doesn’t hold up the plot or seem gratuitous. So, thoroughly recommended.
Published by: Tor (2003)