The question of desire, in Jacqueline Carey’s novels

Anika Reads
7 min readDec 14, 2021

Every so often, you wonder if your favorite writers, drunk off their own powers, toss a coin in the darkness of some much-advanced night and decide to try and write something to see if they can pull it off. Maybe Jacqueline Carey, clutching the laurels rightly heaped upon her after the Kushiel series, asked herself one shadowy evening, what makes someone evil? What if I tried to tell people that the way we think about heroes and villains is wrong and incomplete? What if I tried to do it in a way that made them give a shit?

Here’s another thought exercise: remember this legendary scene from The Lord of the Rings? When Gandalf rises out of the mists of dawn, bringing the Rohirrim down onto the heads of the Orcs, routing them utterly and turning the tide at the Battle of Helm’s Deep? Remember feeling chills travel up and down your arms at the mere description of this scene’s epic majesty?

Now watch it again, but this time, try and imagine how you’d feel if you were one of the Orcs, watching Gandalf speed down that hill faster than any geriatric twice-born wizard fairly should, thinking, are you kidding me, we almost had these m*fuckers.

Carey simultaneously describes the Sundering duology as a tragedy and some of her best work, and if you ask me — long-time fan — only one of these things is true. Much like in Lord of the Rings, there’s a fair bit of mucking about. At times, the story plods along, at times, it blazes. The same is true for Tolkien.

But what Carey spends an inordinate amount of time on, and Tolkien almost none, are the ‘dark’ characters. The villains and the losers.

Sauron was a terrifying eyeball, the Orcs were a snotty mess, the Nazgul were shady wraiths, and just about none of them had anything sympathetic going for them. There is something to be said for a fantasy novel in which the villains are fear itself, the only thing we have to fear. But, that’s a lot of fantasy novels, which simultaneously hold up the idea that we are heroes, and that there is such a thing as absolute right. This latter belief is valuable up to a point, but after that point it becomes terribly destructive.

Carey, as a writer, consistently questions these narratives, in a way that draws attention to the dangers of always casting ourselves as the unequivocal heroes of our stories. I see traces in The Sundering of the same questions that she brought to one of her other novels, Miranda and Caliban.

Caliban, like the characters in The Sundering, is a villain, specifically in Shakespeare’s Tempest. In a manner that may not have directly inspired Tolkien, but formed part of the literary tradition he inherited, Caliban is described as a “savage”. He’s also the original inhabitant of the island where Prospero and his daughter Miranda wash up.

Prospero binds the magics of the island, imprisons Caliban, and teaches him language. It’s clear that Prospero sees himself as a savior, but Caliban refers to him as an oppressor and a thief:

This island’s mine, by Sycorax my mother,
Which thou takest from me. When thou camest first,
Thou strokedst me and madest much of me, wouldst give me
Water with berries in’t, and teach me how
To name the bigger light, and how the less,
That burn by day and night: and then I loved thee
And show’d thee all the qualities o’ the isle,
The fresh springs, brine-pits, barren place and fertile:
Cursed be I that did so! All the charms
Of Sycorax, toads, beetles, bats, light on you!
For I am all the subjects that you have,
Which first was mine own king: and here you sty me
In this hard rock, whiles you do keep from me
The rest o’ the island.

At one point, Caliban suggests that had be not been prevented, he would have had sex with Prospero’s daughter Miranda. Many readers imply this act would have been a rape, but the word rape does not appear in the text.

Considering all this, it’s perhaps unsurprising that many modern scholars have used Caliban’s story to anchor post-colonial literary analyses. Miranda and Caliban exists in this vein, admirably. Carey presents Miranda and Caliban as teenagers who fall in love, but whose affair is cut short by a Prospero who is infuriated that Miranda would love someone so far beneath her. Prospero ends the affair, violently. The novel ends with Caliban standing alone on a crag, watching Miranda sail away with a prince her father approves of, unable or unwilling to acknowledge that she will never return to him. The costs of patriarchy are acknowledged and explicit; the loss of love, of innocence, of a chance at a fairer and perhaps more beautiful world where people can love whom they choose.

And yeah. It’s sad as fuck.

Similarly, in the Kushiel trilogy, Carey inverts a core precept of Christian mythology. In Terre d’Ange, the citizens honor Blessed Elua’s single demand: Love as thou wilt. No sexual orientation is forbidden and prostitution is sacred. Carey’s novel exists in a world where sexual desire, its messiness and its capacity to transform and change, is a propulsive and valued force.

In The Sundering, she offers another, more explicit reversal, in telling a story that is clearly modeled on The Lord of the Rings, but focused on the figure of Satoris Banewreaker, a maligned and fallen God. (Carey’s first book was a nonfiction text about art history, and the first novel in The Sundering closes with an epigraph from Paradise Lost, so obviously she knows her traditions). The text draws heavily — and in my opinion, to its loss -on archaic tropes and language. The word ‘doughty’ appears several times. The Elves, called the Ellylon, are beautiful, immortal and wise. Humans are thoughtful but rapacious, given to destructive passions. The trolls are ugly as sin. All these things are fine, but the martial heroes are largely Men, and the only two women of note in the story spend most of it kidnapped and held as captives. One of the protagonists is mixed-race and disabled, and while Carey elevates his humanity, I wouldn’t have minded if she’d nixed the terms “crippled” and “half-breed” from this novel’s vocabulary. There’s a version of this story that hewed less to bygone romantic stereotypes and was equally compelling, and I’m sorry Carey didn’t try to write it.

But as in some of Carey’s other work, the crux of the conflict between the Gods in The Sundering appears to be the issue of sex. Specifically, that Satoris thinks it’s a good thing, and the other gods would rather everyone went without. Partway through book #2, Satoris offers the following caution about the world his enemies envision:

A sterile world, as sterile as I have become, ruled by the Lord-of-Thought, in which nothing ever changed and no thing, no matter what its passions, no being, no creature, sought to exceed its place.

There is an argument buried in here, about the nature of desire and its capacity to change and its capacity to resist, that I wish Carey had allowed her characters to spend more time on. If there’s one thing that bothers me about the characters in this novel, it’s that they don’t change, and the costs of their intransigence are not well articulated. One of Satoris’ chief minions, the General Tanaros Caveros, joins the dark side after murdering his wife for being unfaithful to him with his brother (he also murders his brother). Thousands of years later, Tanaros battles his growing attraction to the captive Ellylon princess Cerelinde (ugh, captive princesses, ugh) and she battles her attraction to him, up until a final moment when he sees that “unlike his wife, the Lady of the Ellylon would never betray the Man to whom she was betrothed.”

Maybe it’s just that I long for a redemption arc here — I mean, who doesn’t — but why the hell not? Why can’t Cerelinde embrace unfaithfulness and exist within the framework of the hero? Why can’t Tanaros realize that passion is messy and the people we marry are allowed to change? Why must Tanaros cling so fiercely to a duty that no longer makes sense? Especially considering that change is what Satoris is all about. If Carey’s central argument is that our passions are destabilizing but in a way that is necessary for us to grow, then why don’t her characters experience any growth? I scripted about a thousand headcanon movies in which the princess Cerelinde drew a sword, chopped her enemies’ heads off, and made out with Tanaros in front of her annoying ex-fiancee. (I also had visions of the Sorceress Lilias, the text’s other captive queen, bursting the confines of her cage and raining fire down upon all the morons of her planet.)

I don’t think I’m spoiling the story when I say that none of these dreams of mine came true.

Change manifests in many ways. But considering the God to whom they professed their loyalty, Satoris’ minions felt far too static as characters.

Carey wanted to write a tragedy. And these two novels are a tragedy: Cerelinde, emerging from the darkness of captivity, finds her perception of the world and herself unforgettably altered. Of all the characters, she is the only one who can be said to have changed, but she takes little action based on what she’s learned. She sees the hard work of recovery ahead, but she no longer knows for sure that the world is better off because her side won, and she knows she’ll carry this seed of doubt inside her, unwatered, for the rest of her life. This is the novel’s biggest tragedy, and Carey knows it, and it is far more shattering in the books as it is in my retelling here. It’s too bad it takes two somewhat underwhelming books to get there.

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Anika Reads

Reader, gamer, sci-fi/fantasy nerd, reviewer. I love great stories, regardless of medium. This account is for honest reviews, observations, and critiques.