It's hard to review this whole book without giving major spoilers, but I will try. It will definitely spoil Kushiel's Dart and Kushiel's Chosen, so don't read this review until you've read those books.
I waffle between four and five stars on this one, to be honest. It's probably more of a 4.5, but I'll rate it 5 despite the issues I have, since the storytelling and worldbuilding are still enough to overcome the peeves. The major peeve, for me, still being the more prevalent and horrible misuse of “loathe” (as opposed to the correct “loath”). It's ALL OVER this book, and it makes me cringe every time. The writing is once again not nearly as purple as in Dart, but this one constant and consistent mess-up bothers the ever-loving snot out of me.
That said, it also handles some of my favorite stuff quite well. Once again, the world-building is exquisite, as is the characterization. I love seeing Phèdre and Joscelin's growth in the ten years since Chosen - especially Joscelin. The Joscelin of the earlier books would never have survived this one, and I'm glad he got his ten years' respite. I also love seeing much more of Carey's world, especially far off, exotic lands and how the myths and cultures of their real-life counterparts are worked into the Kushiel world. And, too, there's by very favorite of seeing the gods at work in mortal lives. It's heavier handed in this book, but that theme has always been the main draw for me.
Avatar picks up after Phèdre's prophesied ten years' respite, during which she has studied more Yeshuite texts in an effort to find the key to Hyacinthe's freedom. If anything, I wish this entire trilogy had more Hyacinthe! Still, we knew Phèdre would never give up in that quest – nor in her (and everybody's) quest to find the missing Prince Imriel de la Courcel, son of her god-linked nemesis. In book 3, these two quests, of course, intertwine.
Which leads Phèdre and Joscelin down a Long Road indeed, and a hard one. This book needs a major TRIGGER WARNING, I think, because it is not filled with the same consensual, spiritual BDSM fun/worship of the earlier books. No, this time Phèdre must submit herself to true darkness, steeped in death and madness. This is not sexy fun playtime. This is horrible, degrading, truly torturous stuff. It is not for the weak of heart – but it's handled well, imho. It's a darkness that has the potential to take over the entire world, and the gods themselves are doing whatever they can to try to stop it, though of course the price of that always falls on the mortals.
Of course, at some point Phèdre does indeed find young Imriel, who is completely ignorant of his heritage. I adore Imriel's characterization! There's a big underlying theme with nature vs. nurture, and how much of his traitorous parents' qualities lie in him versus the influence of the life he has lived. To me, Imriel is such a joy, and his interactions with Phèdre, even when negative, still shine. Imriel is one of the great strengths of this novel, I think, and his scenes should not be overlooked at all.
I can't speak much more of my favorite portions without giving too much away, but I will say that I think just about every scene is wonderfully done, especially the climaxes. The only real issue I have is that the foreshadowing is too heavy-handed in places. But all of her interactions with every character is wonderful, and all of the god-touched moments are brilliant. It could definitely be in danger of seeming too Mary-Sue-ish in places, but Phèdre's god-given gifts are unique and it makes sense that she would be the one in some of these positions. Not just her, though. We also see how the gods work through other characters, and whether it's blatant like Phèdre or much more subtle, it's still expertly done.
It's a wonderful conclusion to Phèdre's series. The dark parts and the bright parts balance each other brilliantly. While I'm not necessarily super-happy about certain parts of the conclusion, I must admit that it's all quite fitting. It wraps up all of the loose ends, but definitely leaves me wanting more – which is good, since Imriel eventually gets a trilogy of his own. I can't wait to reread those!