The Big Idea: Jacqueline Carey
Author Jacqueline Carey is no stranger to the sort of fandom that thrives on fringes, but in this Big idea for her latest novel, Cassiel’s Servant, Carey explains how that fame and fandom exists for reasons that many might not expect.
Kushiel’s Legacy is a cult fan favorite.
It must be true, because that’s what my new marketing materials say. No one asked me, but it’s not the sort of thing one can assert on one’s own. It’s like a nickname. No one gets to decide their own nickname. It just doesn’t work that way. Personal name, yes. Nickname, no. It is bestowed upon you by others, out of affection or spite.
As cult status has been bestowed upon me.
In some ways, it’s not a surprise. When I was young, my mother was afraid some charismatic band of sociopathic seekers would recruit me. Decades later, I asked her if she was still afraid I’d join a cult. She looked at me sidelong and said, “No, honey. I’m more afraid you’d start one now.”
I mean, it’s not like I bought a church…
The truth is that it has very little to do with me, and everything to do with the world I created. One fan told me she bought Kushiel’s Dart because she could tell from the cover that it was “the right kind of wrong.” Finding work by an artist that feels like it was made just for you is an exhilarating experience, and Kushiel’s Legacy hits a lot of beats. Kinky, but feminist! Epic fantasy, but alternate history! Tattoos! Slow burn romance! Cool fight choreography! Subversive theology! Big battle scenes! Lyrical prose for readers who love words like ‘ormulu’ and ‘incarnadine!’ It’s the right kind of wrong in all kinds of ways. A cult favorite is a secret handshake saying, “You are not alone.” It’s a doorway to a place that feels like home.
In my formative years, midnight showings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show was the cult jam for all the queer kids, the theater geeks and band nerds, the stoners, the New Wave fans trapped in the land of rock gods and hair bands. It was absurd and terrible, but it was ours. In its own way, it mainstreamed gay sex. We had never seen anything like it. It served us camp sensibility, and we ate it up.
Art critic Robert Hughes coined the phrase “the shock of the new” to describe modern art, and I think it’s an apt one for many works that develop a cult following. There’s a visceral thrill to encountering something totally new and unexpected. When that’s combined with a sense of homecoming, it’s some powerful magic.
One might suppose the ‘shock of the new’ in this instance refers to the fact that my heroine Phèdre is a god-touched masochistic prostitute. That’s enough right there to explain the whole cult status thing. But to my mind the secret weapon in that premise is ‘god-touched.’ In Terre d’Ange, sex is a sacrament. It may be sensuous, violent, meditative, healing, but between consenting adults, it is holy.
That’s the radical part.
I don’t know how many patrons or sexual encounters Phèdre has in Kushiel’s Dart. At least a dozen, with the implication of more. She’s betrayed into captivity and sexual slavery. Her collected experience reflects the richness and diversity of human sexuality—and it represents the disturbing underbelly, too. Her light shines in some very dark places.
In a very different way, Joscelin’s journey reflects hers.
And I know exactly how many sexual encounters Joscelin has in Cassiel’s Servant. Spoiler alert: Not many. He’s sworn to celibacy. He’s a true believer. What Phèdre endures nearly destroys him. If he’s going to break that vow, he will do it with all the reverence of a priest tearing out his own heart and laying it on the altar.
I see two decades of love for this series in the array of fan tattoos that have crossed my path—the marque or a version of it; a reclamation of self, a declaration of emancipation. In the quotes, from the elemental simplicity of Blessed Elua’s precept of “Love As Thou Wilt” to the paean to resilience of “That which yields is not always weak.”
I hear the stories behind the tattoos. Those I keep locked away in the safe place where artists keep special precious things.
And I stand by this Big Idea: It wasn’t the sex that cemented Kushiel’s Legacy cult status. It was the sanctity.