Jacqueline Carey’s unique brand of epic historical fantasy could be described as confronting, erotic, violent, romantic, complex, emotional, intricate … The list goes on. In this part of the interview, Jacqueline talks in more depth about the themes and structures of her current series, Kushiel’s Legacy.
Part 2: Interview with Jacqueline Carey
Q: One aspect of the Kushiel books that impressed me from the start is your flair for depicting different cultures – something many fantasy authors do imperfectly, perhaps because of a limited knowledge of history and/or languages and cultures other than their own. Your two most recent novels take Imriel on increasingly long journeys in which he visits various lands, in effect attending university in Italy, settling in northern Britain, and pursuing a vengeful quest up toward the Arctic Circle. How conscious are you about using language, and dialogue in particular, to establish the cultural differences between these places? Do you become so immersed in your world that this comes more or less instinctively? What languages other than English do you speak yourself?
JC: I try to be very mindful about using language to give a sense of a culture’s flavor, though I have to confess, in most cases I’m totally faking it. I only speak rusty French and Spanish, and a tiny bit of modern tourist Greek. But I love the look and feel of words, and spicing the prose and dialogue with a few choice foreign ones makes it feel much richer. I once got an email from a linguist dying to know what was the basis for my Illyrian language. (Albanian, for the curious). Names, including place names, are important. I like to research the origins of place names. Sometimes I’ll use an old version, sometimes I’ll put a spin on it. Eg, the name Barcelona derives from its founder, Hamilcar Barca. I named my fantasy analogue city Amilcar. That bit of history isn’t anywhere in the pages of the books, but I feel it’s there under the surface, waiting to tickle the fancy of the odd historian who recognizes it.
Q: The foundation of the Kushiel books is the mythology – the d’Angeline people are descended from Blessed Elua, who was born of the earth when the blood of Jesus Christ mixed with the tears of Mary Magdalene. Elua and his companions are essential to the psychology of the d’Angeline characters and their main precept for living, ‘Love as thou wilt.’ It seemed to me that, in this second trilogy, interesting moral questions arose from the way the central characters dealt with that precept. ‘Love as thou wilt’ seems on the surface a pretty harmless dictum. But it can also be quite a selfish one. In Kushiel’s Justice, Imriel and Sidonie make a selfless choice for very sound political reasons, and in doing so they deny Elua’s precept. That leads to terrible tragedy and points out very clearly that ‘love as thou wilt’ is not necessarily going to work well for the non-d’Angeline characters. I was left feeling quite ambivalent about the whole thing. Can you talk about that a bit, and tell us to what extent the moral and philosophical ideas of the book reflect your personal convictions? It seems to me this must be more than just extremely inventive world building.
JC: Well, the events that lead to tragedy were set in motion by Imriel and Sidonie denying Elua’s precept, but they were ultimately caused by other characters’ unwise attempts to manipulate fate. In the end, it’s innocents who pay the price, as is usually the case with human transgressions. Throughout the series, I’ve been exploring the ramifications of love as a divine attribute capable of effecting change in the world. In Kushiel’s Justice, we see a glimpse of the dark side of that attribute.
“Love as thou wilt” isn’t a perfect philosophy by any means. We humans have too many conflicting desires; and of course, all bets are off when it comes to amoral characters like Imriel’s mother Melisande. But it’s an interesting notion to explore, and there are certainly worse precepts to follow!
Q: One of the aspects of your storytelling that most engages me is your handling of supernatural elements. You weave these so seamlessly with the political developments and human drama that the reader accepts them without a conscious suspension of disbelief. In Kushiel’s Scion, Lucius is possessed by the ghost of an ancestor, enabling him to be a strong, though somewhat brutal, war-leader in time of crisis. The impact of this on everyone, not least Lucius when he returns to himself and must continue to lead his people, is wonderfully done. The magicians of the Maghuin Dhonn in Kushiel’s Justice are unforgettable. What’s the key to doing this so effectively? It’s relatively unusual, in my reading experience, for a writer of fantasy to incorporate the uncanny so subtly in his or her ‘world’.
JC: You’re too kind! For me, the key lies in the fact that all the supernatural elements are a direct extension of the various mythologies that inform the books. In the instance of Lucius, it comes from the Roman reverence for the spirits of their familial ancestors. The mythos of the Maghuin Dhonn is a bit more freely invented, but their magic derives from it all the same. I think that keeping the supernatural element grounded by myth makes it feel more organic to the setting and story. And the simple fact that much of the mythology, history, culture and geography is somewhat familiar to the reader probably helps make it seem more accessible.
Q: There aren’t many fantasy novels in which religion plays such a major part as it does in Kushiel’s Legacy. For the Angelines, sensual love is bound up with religious belief through the precepts of Blessed Elua. The erotic elements of Kushiel’s Dart and, in particular, the way you showed some fairly extreme forms of sexual practice as tied up with religious conviction – a sort of divine sensuality – made that book unique and, for many readers, quite confronting. But it’s not just about sex. Kushiel’s Scion and Kushiel’s Justice show us many kinds of love: a sibling-style affection between Imriel and Alais, the devotion between Imriel and his foster parents, the comradely bond of Imriel and Eamonn, a slowly developing, sweet marital love and, of course, erotic passion. Imri seems to learn through love. Could you talk about this theme (love and faith) and how it’s built into the Kushiel series?
JC: A lot of fantasy novels use religion as a plot device, yet there’s seldom any actual sense of religion as a living, breathing faith. That was definitely something I wanted to address. I remember hearing a discussion on National Public Radio regarding a new book on The Iliad. The author claimed that when Homer described Athena seizing Achilles by the hair, that wasn’t a metaphor; he was describing what he believed to be a literal truth. I suspect the point is debatable, but it still struck me. While I opted to take a less literal tack, I wanted to imbue the books with a strong sense of the numinous.
The link between the carnal and the spiritual is obviously the most sensational aspect, but I’ve tried to explore love in all its many manifestations throughout the series. One of the ideas I’ve enjoyed delving into is the notion that love isn’t necessarily a gentle, nuturing force; it can be powerful, terrible and demanding. One of my favorite passages is in Kushiel’s Chosen after a young sailor admits to Phedre that he’s willing die in her name because she’s beautiful and she was kind to him. She muses: “They are fools, who reckon Elua a soft god, fit only for the worship of starry-eyed lovers. Let the warriors clamor after gods of blood and thunder; love is hard, harder than steel and thrice as cruel. It is as inexorable as the tides, and life and death alike follow in its wake.”
Q: The struggle between good and evil is central to most fantasy novels. Usually it’s pretty clear cut (hobbits vs Dark Lord.) Not so in your books – they feature all the shades of grey in between. I remember talking to you just after Kushiel’s Dart was first published, and your describing your work as ‘fantasy for grownups.’ It seems to me that is true not just because the books contain explicit erotic material, but also because of their moral complexity. Even the most likeable characters make choices that could be seen as flawed. Most of them stumble on their journeys. Imriel’s mantra is ‘I will try to be good.’ But it’s not always clear what being good entails. Berlik performs a barbaric act, sparking Imriel’s epic journey of vengeance. Another writer might have given us their final confrontation as a dramatic action climax, man battles bear in the frozen wastes. You write it in a way that not only brings a tear to the reader’s eye, but makes us ponder faith and duty, atonement and redemption.
JC: Thank you so much! That scene is one of my all-time favorites.
I love the way fantasy taps into deep-seated archetypes, but the real world is a complex place, and I often find fantasy with a simple good vs. evil worldview unsatisfying on some primal level. I wanted to write work that rings those heroic chimes, but also infuses the story with genuine humanity. One of my favorite series as a child was Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain Chronicles. In Taran Wanderer, the hero sets out to find himself and tries his hand at a number of trades. He succeeds at all of them… except the one that proves to be his heart’s desire.
That, to me, was a profound life lesson: You do not always get your heart’s desire. All the wanting and hard work in the world do not always make it so. Life is unfair.
Moral complexity is a fact of existence. Pathological exceptions aside (and they may have their own internal rationales), no one sets out to be a bad person, evil for evil’s sake. When we do bad things, we convince ourselves that the end justifies the means, that our actions are for the greater good. This is seldom true, yet possible. In the case of Berlik, it was true. In the end, he committed a heinous act that ensured his people’s continued existence. Over the course of his quest, Imriel comes to recognize this. And thus, the final confrontation becomes about something much larger than vengeance.
If readers walk away from my work feeling it was a fun ride, I’m happy. But if they walk away pondering the deeper issues, I’m even happier.
Click HERE for the 3rd and final installment in Juliet Mariller’s personal interview with fantasy author Jacqueline Carey!