Okay, so this book was equal parts intriguing, disturbing and frustrating.
I've never read 50 Shades of Grey but this kind of felt like the medieval version of it. Okay, probably not like it all and since it's not on the list, I'm not going to read it!
So the plot revolves Phèdre who is sold by her parents to one of the houses of the Night Court. Basically, in the country where most of the plot takes place, the central religious tenant is 'Love as thou wilt' which includes everything. The Night Court trains courtesans (both men and women) in the ways of Namah - or physical love. In Phèdre's case she's 'pricked by Kushiel's dart' which means she derives pleasure from pain. Thus setting the stage for lots of BDSM.
That isn't the creepy part. All the various people getting it on with who they like and what they like is fine. What is creepy is in the first few chapters when Phèdre is really young. Since she grows up in the Night Court she thinks of lying with patrons when she's 10. SUPER CREEPY. Then there was also the way her and Alcuin were bought by Anafiel Delaunay and essentially groomed to become 'servants of Namah' - or courtesans. Though, it is always said that they wanted to serve and Anafiel would have never allowed them to do so unless they wished.
Phèdre, as being pricked by Kushiel's dart, draws a certain type of clientele and her 'virgin price' is paid at 14 - to basically the enemy of Anafiel (so it's typically a bit brutal). But she chooses to accept the contract and she wants to. Fine. THAT WAS SUPER CREEPY. You forget that most of the book happens while she's a teenager essentially.
So that was the disturbing part.
The intriguing bit was the political intrigue, daring escapes and war. So the last 200 pages or so. I do confess that it would not have been nearly as intersting without the first somewhat boring first 250 pages.
However, some of that is disturbing as well. Phèdre and her protector Joscelin are betrayed and sold as slaves to the barbarians of the north. She then has to ply her trade (as a prisoner) for the 2 of the higher ranked barbarian leaders. She does it 'willingly' in the sense that she knows she has to (there is also one attempted rape during this period).
Basically, anytime something needs to be done, she has to sleep with someone and do what she does best - which seems to amount to getting tortured and then laid (by both men and women). WHAT-EVER. As a plot device, it worked better with the intrigues in the city but eventually it was like "oh for fuck sakes!" There's got to be a better way than this, not this many people can be into torturing someone.
The most frustrating part was poor Joscelin. I really liked him, he was my favourite character. He was a celibate warrior priest, contracted to protect Phèdre because of all the various political machinations around the Queen and how she was helping to protect her. Of course they fall in love. And I suppose it was ironic in the sense that he was supposed to protect her and part of her job was to submit to whatever her clients wanted (or in the case of being captured and a slave, unable to do anything). But still. BRUTAL.
I read the plots of the next couple books and it's not like it gets any better. By any accounts it seems to get worse. What a terrible love story.
So. Disturbing, frustrating and yet intriguing. But I don't think I'd recommend it - the first 250 pages are pretty dull. I'm not sure it's woth the pay off.
IRRITATINGLY. I think it may pass the test.
Does it have at least 2 female characters
Yes. It has a shitload.
Is one of them a main character Yup. At least 3 including the main character.
Do they have an interesting profession/level of skill with male characters Yes, god dammit. There's 1 queen, 1 master of manipulation, 1 bloody warrior queen, the bloody Queen's poet. I could go on.
Bonus point: They talk about gender equality Not really, except maybe when they go to Alba.
Bonus point: The ratio of female to male characters is 50/50 Aside from the fact that the massive armies are made up of dudes, I'd say it's pretty close.
Don't know if it makes up for the basic plot of Phèdre having to be beaten, cut up, flogged (though she enjoys it) at ever major plot point.
I DON'T KNOW. You judge. I want to say no but all the women are generally super intelligent and strong willed, even Phèdre. God dammit. 3/5 stars. 2 lost of creepiness and the lack of imagination when it came to solving problems.