Ah, Kushiel's Chosen! While I technically enjoyed it a bit less than Dart, I'm still giving it 5 stars because the overwrought prose is vastly improved (still florid, in keeping with Phèdre's voice, but not nearly as bad). I also really enjoyed seeing more of Carey's world – and am always extremely impressed with her research of other cultures and their religions/myths to incorporate them believably into her novels. My review will NOT spoil Chosen, but there's really no way to review this book without spoiling major aspects of Dart, so don't read this until you've read that one.
Kushiel's Chosen picks up after Dart, where Phèdre accepts the gambit that closed Dart and begins her search for the escaped traitor and the unknown allies who orchestrated the escape. We see Phèdre's debut as Naamah's Servant who is also a Peer of the Realm, and all of her childhood dreams come to fruition...but ring hollow without the presence of Hyacinthe, who is still bound by the geis that he took in her place. So Chosen follows her exploration into Yeshuite lore, where she hopes to find the key to his freedom, as well as her returning to intrigue as her own agent rather than Delaunay's.
It does suffer from “middle book syndrome”, whereby our obvious OTP is torn apart by lack of communication, understanding, and general stupid shit. Seems like every trilogy's middle book has this trope. Rigid as Joscelin's Cassiline training is, I can see how this is quite in character during Phèdre's return to Naamah's Service, but then it only exacerbates when they travel to La Serenissima, and I'll always feel that he was pushed outside of proper characterization for the sake of the plot/middle book. Still, he has a lot of his own learning, growing, and healing to do...but most of it is, sadly, off-scene.
While I kind of sped by/skipped over the importance of it the first time I read, I've actually come to really enjoy how this book makes the distinction of pain between the physical, sadistic play that Phèdre experiences with her patrons and the 'exquisite' pain of the heart that she feels when she and Joscelin are tearing apart. We really see the interplay of Naamah & Kushiel's influence versus Cassiel's, and how Phèdre both despises and can't help but enjoy the pain upon her heart and soul – and Joscelin's too. So while I hate the trope, that part is very well done.
Two characters who really come into their own here are Fortun and Barquiel L'Envers. Phèdre, unlike her patron Delaunay, refuses to keep her retainers in ignorance, and Fortun proves to be a surprisingly good spy. All of her chevaliers do, and it's a joy to watch them work their own angle of intrigue in ways that Phèdre never could, but Fortun is especially adept at putting the pieces together. And Barquiel...well, many readers and Phèdre alike took a strong disliking to him, but this novel is where I really fell in love with him. Even as a, well, not necessarily villain but untrusted ally/suspect, he's just a fantastic character. I was glad to see more of him, as well as his cousin Nicola (who provided the spark that led to my introduction into Shibari (NSFW), so, yes indeed, more please!).
Phèdre's adventures take her to many lands and introduce many amazing characters, but I don't want to touch on that too much for fear of spoilers. They're all quite awesome and very well done, with the exception of one visit where we learn more about the myth/history of Phèdre's namesake, which is incredibly jumbled and confusing if one is not already familiar with the story. And I wasn't, so I tried to learn, but even after learning more about the myth, that passage in the novel is still very clunky and makes no sense (as was the passage that foreshadowed it, which was just an obviously blatant foreshadow-plunk into the narrative).
The character who really steals the show, however, is Ysandre de la Courcel. I've always liked Ysandre, but this book shows a little more about what it's like to be not just a great ruler but an honorable scion of Elua. Many readers (and characters, actually) take issue with the D'Angelines' many blessings, but my favorite is always when we catch glimpses of their tangible connections to their gods. That has always been what drew me to these stories the most. There is a certain scene, which I will not mention in too much depth here, where Ysandre just embodies everything it is to be D'Angeline, to be noble, to be touched by one's god, and to be right, and that scene takes my breath away every time.
There is another amazing scene of Joscelin's which I will not spoil, but it's incredibly well-done. I really love how Carey's writing and description is so well-done whether she's just describing things (clothes, beautiful people, new countries, etc., all of which Phèdre does often), myths/religions, sex, war, fighting, intrigue... It's all well-written by someone who subtly includes just enough to make it real, to make it obvious that she knows her stuff, but not flaunting research or delving into info-dumps. Even in a world where the gods are still watching over and helping their people, where the characters are skilled beyond measure, the writing itself still carries so much realism.
Definitely another wonderful installment. Those who don't care for sweeping epic fantasies balk at the length, but I have few issues with it. I love seeing more of Carey's world and meeting wonderful new characters. There are just a few places where the pacing is off and I lose interest, but not often, and it always quickly draws me back. With the world adequately established and Phèdre growing up a bit more, the narrative is less flowery and focuses more on intrigue, characters, and plot. The plots that began in Dart are seen to almost-full fruition, but of course the villain never shows her full hand. We have a pseudo-set-up for book 3, but the climax of this book is more than enough on its own. I'd even say there are two distinct climaxes, and each are equally brilliant. An engrossing and lovely book all around.