Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Dart can only be described as a cult classic of dark fantasy, and its foundational influences are still visible in today’s romantasy trend. Centred around a courtesan in a Renaissance-inspired world, these are sex-positive, queernorm and pro-choice. In 2023, it feels only right that the original trilogy received a facelift and renewed attention, twenty years on. And we got treated to a whole new Kushiel novel – Cassiel’s Servant. The books are a firm favourite in the GdM team, and it was an absolute pleasure to catch up with Jaqueline Carey on how she feels about her books two decades later and her experience returning to Terre d’Ange.
[JC] It’s an epic fantasy set in an alternate version of medieval France. Our hero Joscelin is the middle son of an old noble family, pledged from birth to become a warrior-priest sworn to the austere–and chaste–Cassiline Brotherhood. He’s assigned to guard an infamous courtesan… who promptly stumbles across a vast plot to betray their entire realm.
[GdM] What inspired you to return to the original story a good two decades later?
[JC] Actually, it was a poem I was commissioned to write for a non-profit organization as part of a fundraiser. After polling readers, I wrote a sonnet from Joscelin to Phèdre. It was the first time I’d put myself squarely in his head and given a voice to his unspoken thoughts. My Muse woke up and said, “I want to tell his side of the story.”
[GdM] Given that Cassiel’s Servant is Joscelin’s version of the events of Kushiel’s Dart, what were some challenges writing from a very different perspective?
[JC] Enough time had passed that I didn’t experience the sort of whiplash I felt going from Phèdre’s to Imriel’s perspective when I wrote his trilogy. One of the biggest challenges was determining what elements to keep and what to axe. We played a game in my house called Does Joscelin Give a Damn? For example: Couture? No! There go yards and yards of ornate brocades and shimmering silk. Political intrigue? No, that’s a bit vulgar. Well, he’s in for a few surprises.
Beyond that, conveying the genuine transcendence that Joscelin finds in serving Cassiel was my number one challenge. There’s a sense of the numinous I try to evoke in these books and his story was no exception.
[GdM] How do you feel about the original trilogy after all this time? Are there things you would change now, things that you feel haven’t quite aged well?
[JC] In recent years, many readers have inquired about the lack of transgender and nonbinary representation in Terre d’Ange. I can only answer honestly—these issues simply were not on my radar 20+ years ago. In a setting intended to embrace all forms of love, that absence is glaring. I wrote a whole blog post (https://www.jacquelinecarey.com/summer-2023/) on how I would address this if I had ground zero do-over. And while I was at it, I’d increase the diversity in the population of Terre d’Ange by giving Blessed Elua an entourage of followers accrued during their time wandering the earth.
[GdM] One of my favourite aspects of Terre d’Ange is how it is essentially a queer-norm world. How was your experience of publishing a story like that in the early 2000s compared to now?
[JC] Weird, in that our culture is far more polarized. No one’s ever known quite what to make of the Kushiel’s Legacy series, in some ways I feel as though its effect was felt more in the long-term ripples than the initial splash. Now I’m not breaking new ground and there’s far more queer normative fantasy out there… but at the same time, I’ve never been more worried that a bookstore or library might be protested or worse for carrying my books.
Not to get all… well, grimdark, but 2022 was the year I began scanning the rooftops at public gatherings.
[GdM] You’ve returned to the rich world of the books many times, writing stories set in different corners of the known world, but all interconnected. Are there any parts as-yet unexplored that you’d like to dive deeper into?
[JC] There aren’t necessarily any geographical parts, but I’ve been tempted with thoughts of another, longer time jump. Terre d’Ange in the Belle Epoque would be fun! That’s the kind of passing fancy I often have in places like museums, and it tends to fade over time.
[GdM] Phèdre is such a wonderful, complex character. Did you have any real-world inspiration for her? Do you have a dream-casting for her and Joscelin if the books were ever adapted?
[JC] I have no idea where Phèdre came from, but her nature was what it was from the first spark of inspiration. I’m actually terrible at playing the dream-casting game because I’d just want wildly talented unknowns in the lead roles. It’s true, and it keeps me from having to renew my choices every time actors age out of plausibility for their imaginary roles.
[GdM] Like many readers, I imagine, I developed a crush on the brilliant and devious Melisande Sharizai the first time I read the books. I have rarely read such a well-crafted female villain. How was she born and how did she change throughout the writing process?
[JC] Essentially, I wanted to create a villainess who was beautiful, compelling and seductive, and gradually reveal her to be utterly terrifying by virtue of sheer intellect and a lack of moral compass. Melisande understands exactly what she’s doing, as well as the fact that it took a god’s chosen to thwart her. The only thing that changed her was the fact that Imriel paid the price for her sins.
[GdM] Do you have any particular darlings in the world that may have flown under the radar?
[JC] Banewreaker and Godslayer are epic fantasy reimagined as epic tragedy from the POV of the losing side. Awesome dragons, and almost everyone dies. It’s spectacular, totally a victim of the Kushiel series’ success. Also Miranda and Caliban, a retelling Shakespeare’s The Tempest. It’s s heartbreaking overlooked gem.
[GdM] Along with this new book, Tor are republishing the original trilogy with updated covers and formats. Did you get much say in those, and are there any content changes to look out for?
[JC] No and no.
[GdM] I am a huge fan of the Santa Olivia series, is there going to be a third book?
[JC] Thank you! I love those, too. But no, Saints Astray was already a bonus book.
[GdM] What books or other media have filled your creative well recently?
[JC] Along with odd bits of random research, I read a good amount to prepare for the Cassiel’s Servant tour and conversation partners along the way—I had a lot of fun with authors like Victoria Aveyard and Brent Weeks, very much enjoyed Shelley Parker-Chan’s debut novel She Who Became the Sun.
My current nominee for best creative content would be the streaming series Reservation Dogs on Hulu. It’s just so, so good—it’s funny, wise, irreverent.
[GdM] What are you working on right now?
[JC] Right now, I’m at a creative crossroads. Paths toward two vastly different literary undertakings lie before me. I have yet to choose one, but the time is coming.