Fantasy literature has never seen anything quite like Jacqueline Carey.
The New York Times-bestselling author is the creator of the Banewreaker and Godslayer series, but she may be best-known for her Kushiel series, which currently encompasses two trilogies, both set, for the most part, in the medieval world of Terre D’Ange (an alternate Europe).
And the sexy, sometimes very explicit things that happen there have, so far, raised many a fantasy-reading eyebrow.
The first trilogy follows the adventures of a courtesan-turned-spy, Phèdre, a woman with a special gift to experience pleasure from pain. Along with her sword-fighting consort, Joscelin, they manage to save the world several times, fight off marauding Skaldis (a Viking equivalent), find the true name of God, and have lots of fun, adult and otherwise.
The second trilogy is about Imriel, the son of Phèdre’s arch-nemisis (and sometime lover) Melissande. Imriel is a brooding, beautiful teenager, who had been kept captive in the harem of an insane king as a child, until he was rescued by Phèdre. In the series, he is married to a princess that he doesn’t love, and all hell breaks lose because he didn’t honor the basic premise of his gods, which is to “love as thou wilt.”
Carey has just released the first novel in her third trilogy set in the same location, Naamah’s Kiss. Set about a hundred years after the end of the Imriel trilogy, it follows a young, naïve, but powerful girl who is raised in the wild by her mother — until the hand of destiny leads her back to the land of her unknown father, Terre D’Ange, where she is quickly embroiled in politics, magic, a mercurial Queen — and, this being a Kushiel novel, lots of joyful sex.
All these novels are enormously entertaining, and when I recently had a chance to talk to their author by phone, I wasn’t at all surprised to find that she is too.
We chatted about her life-long love of myth, why she creates the lands she does, and even her unique appeal to pregnant mothers.
Oh, and, of course, sex.
THE TORCH ONLINE: I’m so excited to be talking to you! I’m such a massive fan. So excuse me if I geek out a little during the interview.
JACQUELINE CAREY: That’s very sweet. Thank you. You’re allowed a squee or two.
TTO: The editor of The TorchOnline.com is a friend of mine, and he’s the one who introduced me to Kushiel’s Dart, the first book in the first series, right after I’d given birth to my daughter. And I was weeping and breastfeeding and freaking out and it was such a wonderful escape to go into the world of this awesome Courtesan Spy. I associate Kushiel’s Dart with my daughter’s birth in some strange way…
JC: You know, oddly enough, you’re not the only person to have discovered the book right around either before or after giving birth. [I've heard from] a number of people confined to bed rest like during a difficult pregnancy. Good escapism is a good thing.
TTO: I read a lot about your literary influences about The Persian Boy, The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe — all very high-brow. But what about TV’s strong women? Have Buffy, Xena, or Charlie’s Angels and also given you some ideas?
JC: You know, it’s not the kind of thing where I can draw a direct one-on-one correlation, like yeah, watching Buffy, I thought, “You know sometime I’m going to write a heroine like that.” But I do love pop culture in general, so I’m sure it’s there subconsciously as an influence. You know, like, Joss Whedon’s ability to combine drama and humor. It’s a subtle thing, not something I’m aware of, but I find with these new books I’m including a little more overt humor in some ways.
TTO: What’s interesting though about Buffy and Xena and the difference is something that makes me sad, the heroines on TV sometimes get punished for enjoying sex. And not in a good way.
JC: (laughs) Right, right…
TTO: And your heroines don’t.
JC: Yeah, there does tend to be a little morality in the heart of anything in entertainment that deals with female sexuality. I think hopefully we’re moving away from that, but it also makes for good drama.
TTO: When Buffy has sex for the first time and then her lover, Angel, turns back into evil vampire, it’s almost like she’s punished for it.
JC: Was she punished for the sex or for the love?
TTO: It was for the love, I guess.
JC: You could argue that Phèdre is punished by fate, in a sense for being what she is and what she has to use to stay in the world and rescue the kid. I go to some pretty dark places with her…
TTO: Do you read FanFic at all?
JC: Not of my work. I understand it, I respect it, uh, but it’s another author. I don’t know, maybe as Winslow Elling said, “You made my characters do WHAT?”
I have a very proprietary sense about them. And to just even to read somebody else attempting their voices weirds me out. So, I have read fanfiction before, but not of my own work.
TTO: I read Naamah’s Kiss, and I loved it, couldn’t put it down.
JC: (Laughs) Excellent.
TTO: Do you see any difference between this trilogy and the first two Kushiel trilogies?
JC: I think probably the primary difference is there is a much more overt element of magic because Moirin [the heroine of Naamah’s Kiss] has a gift for this. And it’s still kind of rooted in culture, and mythology and religion, but it’s more present as an element. That’s clear different number one for me.
The second is there’s a little more overt humor. We had the last 2100 pages of Imriel’s angstiness and the previous 2100 of, well, Phèdre can be a little melodramatic. In fact, I think Joscelin told her once that she might die of melodrama. (laughter) “What would I ever do without you?”
Moirin’s a lot more impulsive and not loaded up with tons of baggage.
TTO: No, she’s pretty much new into the world. When she’s talking with her newly-found father about “Oh, and then I did this and then I did this. Is this bad?” That was very funny.
JC: In the very first chapter, there’s a scene where she and her mother come back to find a gift of eggs on the hearth and Moirin picks one up and licks it. There, in a nutshell, is Moirin’s approach to life.
TTO: One of the things I liked about her, was while Phèdre always seemed to know what to do, more in control, but Moirin’s like “Okay, I guess I’ll do this. Oops! That was a bad idea!”
JC: (laughs) I was pysched to return to a female heroine, but it had to be somebody who was completely unlike Phèdre so I went completely the opposite direction instead [of Phèdre's] intensely sophisticated and educated upbringing, I’ll have her [Moirin] raised in a cave.
TTO: The books are set in an “alternate” world. How do you come up with the names of your country counterparts?
JC: There’s no one method. Sometimes it’s just what pops into my head, um, sometimes if I’m stumped, I’ll try and go back and trace the etymology to the earliest version I can find of a country’s name and then go with that. Or sometimes place names, my Barcelona which is Amilcar. From what I found researching Barcelona’s, the name derived from Hamilcar Barca, a Carthaginian who founded the city originally, and I thought “Oh, I’ll just base it on his first name instead of his last name!”
TTO: Is getting that religious story, the mythology of a country important to you? I love how you make conscious choices about how the gods and demons for each country live in their own countries and seem to have no idea about the other ones. And when one god comes upon a race that worships a bear, they think, “A Bear? Really, a bear?”
JC: (laughs) That seems to be Moirin’s recurring theme because everybody just finds that really weird.
But, yes, I have a lifelong interest in mythology myself. I enjoy researching it. I like the way I can view the elements of magic, of the sense of the luminous into the books. And I think for a lot of fantasy, whatever pantheon exists are really just more plot devices, there’s never a sense of any religion being a living faith for the main character. And I wanted to do something that did feel like living faith.
TTO: And they did, with the visions of the bright lady, Naamah [who Moirin starts seeing in her childhood], the Maghuin Dhonn, and the dragon [a pivotal character in Naamah’s Kiss].
JC: I love my dragon.
TTO: I loved the dragon. I don’t know if he ever comes back, but I love the dragon. And that’s all I’ll say about the dragon so as not to give key plot points away. But, to readers out there, it’s an awesome dragon.
JC: Yes, that was one aspect that I actually did do a trip to China for research purposes, and the landscape was so stunning. I can make do with academic research much of the time, but then the wells start to run kind of dry and you need to be immersed in a real, visceral experience. I don’t think I could have brought the dragon to life as well if I hadn’t seen those landscapes that he’s so tied to.
TTO: There’s another aspect of your books that helped make me an incredibly slavish fan: the absence of any concept of straight or gay. Because as far as I’m concerned, that’s Utopia. Was this always a planned part of the story or did it develop as you wrote the characters?
JC: Yeah, yeah, I mean its wish fulfillment in an obvious sense. One of the reasons I write historical or alternate historical fantasy rather than straightforward historical fiction. I wanted to create a world I’d like to live in, dammit! And that was an aspect of it. I wanted to be able to write freely about human sexuality without raising the cultural issues and I thought, well, I’ll create a culture where a pansexual view is fairly normative.
TTO: Yeah, and occasionally people in other countries comment on it, but it’s never a big thing.
JC: Yes, it’s “oh, those D’Angelines!” (laughs)
TTO: The fantasy community always seemed more liberal to me, but as we all know, there’s some very rabidly anti-gay people in this country. Have you ever received any hate mail or any bad reaction?
JC: Surprisingly little. And it’s funny because I live in a pretty conservative area.
TTO: Michigan, right?
JC: Yes, I live on the west side of the state. I live in a town that’s very liberal, but we’re surrounded by all these Dutch Christian Reform settlers and their Calvinist tendencies. Um, but I think for one thing, people have a different outlet now.
People who really, really hated Kushiel’s Dart, they just went on Amazon and posted a scathing review. And that gave them their outlet and they were purged, and they never bothered to pick up another one of my books because, obviously, they weren’t the right audience for it. So the audience becomes more self-selecting when you’re writing a series.
I did get an email not that long ago, very earnest, from a young Christian man who wondered if I knew there were some dangerous ideas in my books. (Laughter) And maybe I should put some thought into that if I hadn’t. (Laughter)
It was a really polite letter and so I replied politely to it and said, “Yes, those elements are intentional and I appreciate your concern, but I’m not going to change them.” And he politely thanked me for replying, (he) was surprised that I bothered, but he’s not going to pick up the next one…
TTO: When I was reading the book, I literally had no idea as to your personal orientation at all, but then I read in an interview that you’re partnered with a woman, and I don’t want to be too personal, but it seems like your own sexuality helped influence your creation of Terre D’Ange.
JC: Yes, Julie and I have been together for over 15 years, but both of us consider ourselves bisexual and it’s a monogamous relationship, but you can still look and think about it and…
TTO: They don’t burn out your eyes with pokers.
JC: I can explore those things through writing and give [my partner] the manuscript to read so she can enjoy it.
TTO: I grew up in the Bay Area and just to have so many gay, bisexual, and transgender friends and was always brokenhearted by the amount of difference they felt so that’s one of the reasons I loved Terre D’Ange so much. And in Naamah’s Kiss, I was really struck by the emotional, erotic relationships that Moirin developed with Queen Jehane and with the Ch’in princess and while there’s elements of female relationships in the previous Kushiel books, these are far more intense. Was that a choice that you wanted to go there a little bit more deeply?
JC: Yeah, it’s funny, I was just thinking about it based on a comment a reader had made to me. Moirin has very different dynamics with men than with women. She’s more nurturing with women and there’s more of sort of a sexy combative edge with men. And not really intentional, no.
TTO: I wonder if it’s because Moirin got raised by her mother.
JC: Maybe. Creatively, it came from her being descended from and then serving as a Royal Companion [someone who is nurturer, advisor and lover to royalty], and this notion that the most important element of that relationship is trust. And that’s where the difference in the dynamics of both those relationships [with the Terre D’Ange queen and the Ch’in princess] come in, but the intimacy that evolves is based on, is rooted in trust.
TTO: On that level too, one of the things that was kind of interesting about the Imriel trilogy was that it starts out that he had been abused very badly, and so he didn’t have very much sexual connections with men. In the book, as I recall, it was because of the history of his abuse in Drujan made him reluctant to relive that in any way, and I thought it would resolve in the trilogy, but it didn’t. Was that a choice or was his life pretty much overtaken by events?
JC: His life was pretty much overtaken. I was thinking I would play that out at some point, and there was just kind of a card I never found an organic spot for in the unfolding of the plot. So the closest we come is the encounter with Sunjata when he thinks he’s Leander in Kushiel’s Mercy, but that just never worked in with all the terrible things that kept befalling him.
TTO: I have a copy of Sante Olivia, but I just started it and I find it really cool. Is there anything you want the readers of TheTorchOnline.com to know about this book, like specifically?
JC: It’s a hard book to talk about and the publisher decided to kind of go with a paranormal aspect which isn’t inaccurate, but it’s also a book that I myself described as “post punk desert border town fable with boxing and cute girls in love.” Which is more accurate.
I don’t know, it’s a book I’m really fond of and one that there’s just been a lot of weird serendipity around it. Most recently with the outbreak of swine flu in Mexico, that’s really similar to a plot element I use. It’s kind of like “Holy crap!” I hope readers, I know many of them love the Kushiel books and are looking forward to them, but I hope they’ll give this one a try.
TTO: Well, a good storyteller is a good storyteller. And in terms of Naamah’s Kiss, please tell me we’ll see more of Moirin’s father, the priest of Naamah, I love him.
Another thing that’s different about this book, it’s such a staple of fantasy to have an orphaned character, but I was conscious in this of wanting to have both, although not together, a loving mother and an absent father who turns out to be awesome. I’m giving a little props to parents here.
TTO: And this book is about a hundred years after the last Imriel book, but for the first part of the book, I was anxiously looking for clues as to the fate of all the characters I knew and loved, but there was a sentence here and a sentence there, but I got just enough. Did you have a hard time not returning to the outcomes of these characters?
JC: No, not at all actually. As I said all along, I really felt it was time to let them fade gracefully into legend, and I don’t want to know how any of them ultimately met their fates, I don’t want to picture that, so for me it was easy not to go there and not to do it.
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Marcy Rodenborn is a writer who loves condiments too much. Check out her blog.
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