I read Kushiel's Dart back when I was in junior high and, at the time, thought very highly of it.
Like with most re-read books, especially after such a long period of time, my tastes have changed ( or I'm my critical of books now. I'm not sure which applies here.)
Start off by saying that, in the beginning, I greatly enjoyed the prose of the story. It had that descriptive storytelling that let me vividly imagine every road, every person, every detail -- which also, in turn, was part of the problem.
The book is over 900 pages long, at least in physical copy, with a little over 95 chapters.
Suffice it to say, after 400 pages, I no longer wanted that vivid imagery of every facet of every object and person. In some places, this prose absolutely shined; in other places, it dragged the story down to a crawl.
Born with a scarlet mote in her left eye, Phédre nó Delaunay is sold into indentured servitude as a child. When her bond is purchased by an enigmatic nobleman, she is trained in history, theology, politics, foreign languages, the arts of pleasure. And above all, the ability to observe, remember, and analyze. Exquisite courtesan, talented spy... and unlikely heroine. But when Phédre stumbles upon a plot that threatens her homeland, Terre d'Ange, she has no choice.
Betrayed into captivity in the barbarous northland of Skaldia and accompanied only by a disdainful young warrior-priest, Phédre makes a harrowing escape and an even more harrowing journey to return to her people and deliver a warning of the impending invasion. And that proves only the first step in a quest that will take her to the edge of despair and beyond.
Phédre nó Delaunay is the woman who holds the keys to her realm's deadly secrets, and whose courage will decide the very future of her world.
I will start off by saying: I did not like Phedre. I felt she was naive, despite her experiences and upbringing, and was constantly REACTING to everything that was happening at every point in the book.
She's praised early on by one of the more intelligent men in the country, but doesn't ever seem to really display that intelligence on her own -- if anything, she's carried by her predecessor's ( her "owner" ) wealth and abilities, up to the very end.
I did not like most of the side characters, either: some were flat, introduced only to make Phedre seem more intelligent, or to be ... filler, I suppose? That sounds strange, especially in a book, but there were a lot of characters you could have removed and nothing would have changed all that much. I think part of the point there was to emphasize how "desirable" Phedre was to people in power ( they were always people in power ).
There was something of a love triangle, and the main love interest was also a very cliche: dark, broody, with a troubled past.
The world building was interesting, but I found a lot of the concepts hard for me to really believe in. A country built on free love, choice, beauty, but having a terrifyingly strong military? I didn't mind, at first, until it seemed EVERYTHING was about the "beauty" and "Free love" aspect.
I liked the political maneuvering in this book, the betrayals, the backstabbing, the cloak and dagger - but it honestly felt a bit watered down. Like it was missing something.
But, A single character made this book go from one star to three.
Melisande Shahrizai ( a name which bears a striking resemblance to Melisandre from Game of Thrones )
Melisande Shahrizai is one of the most beautiful women in a country that covets and respects beauty - but that's not why she saved this book.
She's a badass woman on a whole different level of badassery. You have your badass women who go into battle and come out looking like a war hero. You have your badass women who go from frail flowers and bloom into blood-soaked thorns.
And then there's Melisande. She's actually not a battle-badass woman, but instead, is the "Man behind the Man" trope personified. Except, well, as a woman.
She's ruthless, brutal, and cunning. She uses her wealth, beauty, and power to basically move the world as she desires, with the end-game goal of becoming queen. She manipulates generals, kings, princes, soldiers - everyone, basically.
She incites countries to go to war with each other, has a vast network of spies, and rules multiple factions from the shadows, despite these factions not even LIKING each other.
She comes within touching distance of dethroning the current rulers of the land, only to be stopped at the very last minute by Phedre.
Overall? I probably wouldn't recommend the series to anyone, since the later books are, honestly, the first book repeated, but with different variables.