A Review – Dark Currents: Agent of Hel by Jacqueline Carey

I’ve seen worse paperback cover art, too.

Jacqueline Carey is my favourite author in the epic fantasy genre; not only because the setting of her Phèdre series is unique, complicated and lacking Tolkienian cliché, but also because the characters are full and believable. So, when I heard that she was branching into my favourite genre, urban fantasy, I felt equal parts excited and apprehensive.

Being the first in a new series, Dark Currents: Agent of Hel has the unenviable task of introducing characters, locations, conflicts and an internal supernatural logic along with telling its own story. As with the beginning of any “genre” series, it must do all of these things with enough strength to sustain its successors. This is where many authors fall down – particularly in urban fantasy.

While Carey’s first novel – Kushiel’s Dart (my review of which can be found here) – was equal parts criticised and applauded for its in-depth world building, Dark Currents drip-feeds us information as the story progresses, allowing us to really get in on the action even in chapter one. The main character, Daisy, is perfectly poised between the magical and mundane to present information on either when the situation arises.

Of course (and at the risk of losing the rest of your day on TV Tropes), there is a certain element of “our monsters are different“. Each species has to be not only introduced, but also seen in action in order to make Carey’s modern monsters distinct from those on the same book store shelf. Nonetheless, this is done with care and is not overly distracting. There isn’t too much contrast with popular culture, for example.

As a caveat to that point, though, I have to admit a little smirk at the “offensive term” for the vampire nest being “Twilight Manor”.

The mystery is gripping enough that even without the supernatural elements it could make a compelling crime novel in its own right. As an element that many urban fantasy writers neglect, I found it rather pleasing that I was mentally working on the puzzle on the few occasions I wasn’t reading.

I found the mix of Christian and Norse mythology to be compelling, though the interaction between the two is not deeply explored. After the atypical theology of her Kushiel series, I would have preferred an approach more from further outside the box, as many supernatural series (including Supernatural) feel the need to use Abrahamic religion as a baseline. Nonetheless, there’s enough non-Christian stuff to sink my teeth into, and I’m sure Carey will address it more in future books, considering her protagonist’s back story.

As an introductory novel, it works well, and I’m sure it will go from strength the strength as the series progresses. It isn’t a stand-out of the genre in the same way I consider Kushiel’s Dart to be, but it is certainly deserving of a place beside Butcher, Hamilton and Harris. If this is your genre, do add Dark Currents: Agent of Hel to your collection.

(The same review on Goodreads is here)

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Review Triple-Bill!

I promised you a post about entertainment, didn’t I? Well, here’s three! I’m so good to you.

Anyway, I reached a point where I had watched everything on Geek and Sundry, a YouTube channel from Felicia Day and Wil Wheaton. This is a channel that includes:

  • The Guild – a hilarious and sometimes uncomfortable web comedy about a group of online gamers meeting IRL.
  • Tabletop – Wil Wheaton playing different board games with a range of (geeky) celebrity guests.
  • The Flog – Felicia’s video blog where she does random things (blacksmithy, ice sculpture) and talks about the things she likes.
  • Sword & Laser – a formerly audio-only book group that specialises in sci-fi and fantasy. They also have a pet dragon.

Tabletop has been a lifesaver for me, allowing me to get my geeky gamer fix far away from the nearest English-speaking dungeon master.

I was railing around for something else to watch, when I came across Vaginal Fantasy on Ms. Day’s personal YouTube channel. Basically, the Vaginal Fantasy Hangout is a four-woman book group hosted on G+ (then uploaded to YouTube). They discuss books which have both strong romantic and/or sexual subplots and exist within “genre fiction” such as sci-fi, fantasy or steampunk.  As a fan of both genre fiction and the Anita Blake series by Laurell K. Hamilton (not to mention Felicia Day), I knew it was for me.

The hangouts themselves are silly, disorganised and regularly slide off-topic. This makes them a hell of a lot more fun than your traditional book review show, and allows for more honest and varied opinions on the books they read. Even if you don’t read the books, I recommend you tune in and have a laugh.

Because it made me laugh, not because I believe it.

This month’s primary pic is Kushiel’s Dart by Jacqueline Carey, which is the third item in our three-part review today.

Kushiel’s Dart is the first piece of high fantasy I’ve read and enjoyed for quite some time1. The world-building is thorough, as one might expect from the genre, based loosely on a medieval cum Renaissance version of Europe.

I loved the world-building. It really allowed me to immerse myself in a world I could see myself living in, rather than the worlds of other fantasy authors, whose worlds seem to be entirely bereft of normal, everyday people.

Beyond this, though, what kept me reading were the characters and the unpredictable story. Although it is a long book (over 300,000 words if my Google-related sources are correct), it allows for so much story to happen in that space of time.

Although I know the world building put some people off in the early chapters, but it drew me in so completely – I was utterly immersed once the plot got moving. It’s one of those epic fantasies where you have to pay attention, I think. I understand the paper edition has a character list and map in the front, which would make it a little easier. Please don’t let this put you off. I totally intend to go back to Terre D’Ange as soon as possible.

I found the motivations of the main characters very realistic and relatable. Putting aside the Machiavellian machinations of the powerful characters (which I also enjoyed), characters are driven by money, freedom, love and evangelical belief. They have flirty frissons, sacrilegious temptations and regrets for lost loves. A love triangle that emerges towards the end kept me wrapped while they were trying to save their world.

Phédre, the main character, is born into a life of religiously-sanctioned prostitution in a highly-cultured society. Marked as imperfect by the red mote in her left eye, she is saddened to think that she will never enter the service of one of the 13 Houses (ancient, high-class brothels).

It turns out that she’s been marked by the angel of punishment as someone destined to take it and enjoy it. She discovers this when she’s beaten for having an adventure outside her House at night. Te mote in her eye is the nominal Kushiel’s Dart.

I won’t tell you about the plot any more, as it twists and turns in unexpected ways. The theme, I think, is one of female strength. Although she is a prostitute and a professional victim, she becomes one of the most influential people in the world. At one point in the book, a character receives a prediction:

That which yields is not necessarily weak.

I think this is very much the message of this piece.

One thing that the Vaginal Fantasy ladies have picked up on in past reading efforts is the lack of gay or bisexual relationships in the romance genre. In Kushiel’s Dart, sexuality is a non-issue. Men and women are trained as prostitutes for the preferences of whomever choses them. There is no stigma or stereotype attached to choosing someone of the same sex, save some parents despairing that their children will have no heirs (a concern very real to some members of the LGBT community). In a society where their religion decrees “love as thou wilt” they really mean it. Totally respect to the author for that.

Honestly, I loved this story. There have been some criticisms in the Vaginal Fantasy Goodreads Forum which I’d like to address.

“The opening chapters are boring”, “too much world building and not enough action”, etc. I discussed this a little above, but I want to reiterate: The world building does take up a lot of the early part of the book. You’ll either enjoy that or not, but it’s definitely worth sticking with it in my humble opinion.

I think this criticism comes in comparison to other “vaginal fantasy” books, which focus much more solidly on action and romance. In Kushiel’s Dart, the focus is more on the world, politics and how a lowly prostitute could possibly (eventually) affect it. The sex comes later, the action later still and the romance yet later. The slow politicking is the story and a big part of the plot. That’s why it’s a big part of the novel. Perhaps it could have been spread out more, but personally I loved it.

Kushiel’s Dart is epic fantasy with a courtesan as the main character. It’s like Lord of the Rings if it had any characters who weren’t asexual.

The BDSM was “too much”. Yeah, BDSM and punishment are big parts of Phédre and her story. This is not playful handcuffs and light spanking. This is torture with sex thrown in. If those are things that will completely turn you off to a character or story, then this isn’t for you.

If you do know a little about BDSM, however, this is a great book to see how it can be handled in a responsible way. Consent and a safe word are contractually agreed upon before anything happens. They are massive issues that are highlighted regularly. These are issues that needn’t be referenced by a fantasy author, and yet become a central part of the plot on occasion. For that, Carey gets more respect from me.

In conclusion: this is epic fantasy with sex and certainly not the other way around. Be prepared for world building and BDSM, but if you can get into them, prepare to be absorbed by an original, yet recognisable world and one lowly courtesan’s  journey through it.

To finish, gratuitous pictures of Felicia Day dancing in an elevator in a recent episode of Supernatural2:

   

 

1 Don’t argue with my definition. Wikipedia says I’m right:

High fantasy is defined as fantasy fiction set in an alternative, entirely fictional (“secondary”) world, rather than the real, or “primary” world. The secondary world is usually internally consistent but its rules differ in some way(s) from those of the primary world. By contrast, low fantasy is characterized by being set in the primary, or “real” world, or a rational and familiar fictional world, with the inclusion of magical elements.

2 Yes, it’s a cliché, a self-proclaimed geek having a crush on Felicia Day. So sue me.