Fantasy Classics: “Kushiel’s Mercy” (by Jacqueline Carey)

Note: Some spoilers follow.

And so we come at last to the conclusion of Imriel’s story arc, and what a journey it’s been, full of heartache and dark magic, soaring passion and dark despair, political turmoil and emotional despair. Kushiel’s Mercy begins with Imriel and Sidonie, illicit lovers, opening up to everyone about their love for one another. This, obviously, does not sit well with Sidonie’s mother Queen Ysandre, nor with many peers of the realm, many of whom cannot quite let go of the fact that his mother Melisande cost the lives of many of their families and friends with her acts of treason. Thus, to clear his name and earn the right to marry her, he plans to bring her at last to justice. Unfortunately, matters become significantly more complicated when both Sidonie and the entire City of Elua are placed under a malignant spell by the Carthaginians, and Imriel must do everything in his power–even consulting his mother–to save everyone and everything he loves.

The novel moves at amazingly fast pace while at the same time keeping us ensnared in its narrative twists and coils. It’s one of those books that, once you start reading it, you find yourself pulled inescapably onward. Part of this, certainly, has to do with the intense relationship between Sidonie and Imriel. Carey has a true gift for conveying the power of emotions and for doing so while also emphasizing the sexual side of human relationships. In my opinion, she’s one of the few authors to truly rival Anne Rice in her ability to convey both the fiery sizzle and smoky sensuousness of the act of sex.

The characters, of course, are all the ones that we love, as well as a few (most notably the Carthaginians) that we come to truly hate for what they have done to the people that we have come to care about through the course of this series. Imriel in particular has really grown on me. While I’m not sure that he’ll ever have quite the same place in my heart as his foster-mother Phèdre, there’s no doubt that he is a good man simply trying to live the best life that he can. It’s thus uniquely rewarding to see him finally earn his heart’s desire and wed Sidonie at the end.

If I have one complaint, it’s that we didn’t get the chance to see Melisande one last time after Imriel and Sidonie’s return to the City of Elua. I held out hope there at the end that she might make a surreptitious appearance at their wedding, perhaps in disguise, but alas my hopes were foiled. Still, her reunion with Imriel is touchingly understated and, in a bit of delicious irony, it’s actually her machinations that ultimately prove essential to saving the land that she almost brought to its knees (twice). And, what’s more, these scenes in the novel prove once and for all that, monstrous as she may be in many ways, Melisande is not completely evil, that even in her heart there is still the possibility for love.

Personally, I found this to be by far my favourite of the three books devoted to Imriel. As the story pounded toward its conclusion, I literally felt my pulse getting faster, as Imriel races to try to save the City of Elua from the depths of absolute madness. There were even times where I was uncertain whether all of the main characters were going to survive, until I remembered that I wasn’t reading Game of Thrones.

In fact, I am always pleasantly surprised by how intensely these books believe in the essential goodness of humanity. Kushiel’s Mercy, like its predecessors, takes great pains to show that, even in the darkest of times, there is still something that’s worth believing and worth fighting for. Even though it has become rather popular in fantasy to emphasize the essential darkness and rottenness at the heart of most men and women, Carey’s books seem to take to heart the most important precept of Blessed Elua: “Love as thou wilt.” As a result, you emerge from Kushiel’s Mercy feeling a great deal of optimism. If even a character like Melisande can experience redemption, then who among us is truly doomed?

This isn’t to say that the novel doesn’t have its fair share of villainy, for there is no doubt that the cunning Carthaginians are rapacious and evil, particularly the primary villains. What’s more, this novel takes us into some truly dark places as far as magic goes, which has been true of the last several volumes. Though there isn’t one clear magic system that governs this entire world, it still lives and breathes with its own grounded reality, and you find yourself believing utterly in its workings. And, believe me, these enchantments sometimes become quite intense indeed (how else to describe an spell that ensnares an entire city?)

Kushiel’s Mercy is about many things: about the ability of love to triumph over all, of the strain of loyalty; of the complex (and often fraught) relationship between desire and duty. It is also a fitting conclusion to the story arc that began so long ago with Phédre and Joscelin attempting to save their beloved country from the machinations of those who would see her brought low. Somehow, Jacqueline Carey manages to make it all come together into a seamless whole, one that, like a good sexual romp, leaves you completely satisfied and yet emotionally exhausted. What more could you ask from a book?

Having finished the two trilogies dealing with Phèdre and Imriel, it’s time now to turn to one of the descendants of Sidonie’s sister Alais. While I’m looking forward to more adventures set in this world, I’d be lying if I didn’t say I was sad to leave behind the characters that I have come to know and love so dearly.

Still, all good things must come to an end, and so I look forward to reading the next trilogy.