This book, beloved of many a fantasy fan, is 900 pages of turgid foolishness.
There. I said it. My sophomore year roommate is, I'm sure, rethinking our friendship after reading that, but seriously: Turgid. Foolishness.
Kushiel's Dart's protagonist is the mother of all Mary Sues, Phedre no Delaunay. Cursed with a scarlet mote in her left eye (no joke) she is destined to experience pain and pleasure as one- basically, destined to be really, really into S&M. This leads to lots of creepy scenes of her in her childhood getting really turned on by getting pricked by a pin and, eventually, to being sold into indentured servitude and semi-whoredom.
It is this servitude that basically lost me from the beginning. In the land of the novel, Terre D'Ange (it's France! But sexier.) the ruling tenet is "Love as thou wilt." This seems to only apply to the upper classes, who run around having various sexual escapades with various paid and unpaid companions until one wonders who actually does the governing. Maybe I'm missing The Point of the book, but isn't grooming children from a young age for work as sexual companions, you know, wrong? Basically setting it in a fake version of our world, where this kind of activity is OK because it's justified by religion and is a way of life, doesn't take the squick out of it for this reader.
There is a plot in Kushiel's Dart, sandwiched in between scenes of Phedre getting the crap beaten out of her while having sex and loving it , which involves attempts by various groups to take over Terre D'Ange. These attempts are strung together with the kind of overly complex worldbuilding that requires vast lists of character names and group definitions. The betrayals and plot twists are broadcast hundreds of pages in advance, thanks to Phedre's inability to tell a story without inserting ominous warnings: "If only I had known then that this woman was actually a horrible manipulative jerk!" etc., etc.
For me it was Phedre's failures of narration and her utter unbelievability as a protagonist that made me unable to get into Kushiel's Dart. She's not just beautiful, she's mesmerizing, with an "imperfection" that actually makes her hotter. She's not just naturally smart, she's been educated by her master to know history and politics and singing and art. Not only can she read, she also speaks rare languages that really come in handy when she has gets sold into slavery with the Skaldic peoples (proto-faux-Scandinavia, if you can imagine). Everyone is really impressed by her diplomatic abilities. Oh. And she really really loves sex.
A Mary Sue ... in literary criticism and particularly in fanfiction, is a fictional character with overly idealized and hackneyed mannerisms, lacking noteworthy flaws, and primarily functioning as wish-fulfillment fantasies for their authors or readers. Perhaps the single underlying feature of all characters described as "Mary Sues" is that they are too ostentatious for the audience's taste, or that the author seems to favor the character too highly. The author may seem to push how exceptional and wonderful the "Mary Sue" character is on his or her audience, sometimes leading the audience to dislike or even resent the character fairly quickly; such a character could be described as an "author's pet".
That's my criticism in a nutshell. Phedre no Delaunay isn't a character: she's a weird non-human who does Everything Better than Everyone Else and who everyone in the book eventually falls in love with / devotes themselves to / has sex with. Coupled with the labyrinthine, nonsensical plot, the awkward sex-scenes, and the aforementioned squickiness involving training young people to be sex slaves, I had to put this book down about 200 pages from the end.
Once again: Turgid foolishness.