Note: Some spoilers follow.
I have to admit to a bit of trepidation going into the third of Jacqueline Carey’s series set in her fictionalized Renaissance. I knew that my beloved characters from the earlier series, Phèdre and Imriel, were now mere historical figures and that the story centered on the young woman Moiron, one of the Maghuin Dhonn of Alba. I earnestly wondered whether I’d find myself drawn into this story to the same degree that I had with its predecessors.
I should have known better, and I should have trusted Jacqueline Carey. I loved this book from the first page to the last, and I’m already diving deep into the sequel.
Moirin is a young woman who stands astride two very different worlds. On the one side is her ancestral people of the Maghuin Dhonn, the very same bear-worshipers who played such a large role in Imriel’s story. On the other is her father, a D’Angeline priest of Naamah. Though she yearns to stay in Alba next to her beloved mother, she finds herself drawn inexorably across the, first to Terre D’Ange, where she becomes enamored of both a sorcerer and the queen herself, and then to faraway Ch’in, where she encounters a princess possessed by a dragon and a realm poised to be torn apart by war, sorcery, and a dark weapon that could unravel the world itself.
Once again, Carey manages to create a character who is at once both utterly believe and completely sympathetic. Unlike Imriel, who from the beginning was tortured because of what he endured as a child, Moirin has the advantage of having been raised in almost total innocence in the forests of Alba. There is thus a certain earnestness and sweetness to her character that makes you cheer for her, even as you sometimes wince at the situations in which she quickly becomes ensnared. For, as both a distant relation of the King of Terre D’Ange (her ancestress was Alais, the sister of Queen Sidonie) and as a woman who possesses great magical power, she is easily ensnared in the schemes and plans of those in power.
While the novel is told completely in first person from Moirin’s POV, it is also populated by a host of fascinating characters, ranging from the sorcerer Raphael (son of the Lady of Marsilikos) and Queen Jehanne to the Ch’in princess Snow Tiger and the warrior turned sorcerer’s apprentice Bao. All of them bring something unique to the novel, and Moirin, with her sensitive soul and natural inclination to desire, finds herself giving a piece of her soul to each of them in turn.
I’ll be honest. It was a bit refreshing to find myself reading a novel that centered so thoroughly on female desire. It’s not that I didn’t like Imriel, but his series was most definitely a male-oriented one. Moirin’s tale goes into far greater detail about the desires shared between women than even Phèdre’s story, and Cary brings her usual skill at conveying both the raw physical intensity and the transcendental spirituality that both make up the human sexual experience. I’ve said it before: Carey is one of the best authors around in terms of her ability to craft poetic prose.
Naamah’s Kiss is perfectly paced. This is the type of novel that’s a bit of a slow burn at first, as it introduces us to the world, its people, and its primary character. As always, we find ourselves navigating the same world that Moirin is, trying to determine who has exactly what motives. In the process, we learn a great deal about this world and its continued development. Make no mistake, things have changed quite a lot in the century since Imriel began his tempestuous relationship with his cousin Sidonie. Terre D’Ange has turned inward, even as some of its people yearn to explore the new world across the ocean. And in Ch’in, especially, new technologies are being born that might reshape this world or destroy it, particularly the development of gunpowder into fearsome weapons of war that are known (accurately enough) as the Divine Thunder. It remains to be seen whether and how the advances of modernity might affect this world that Carey has so thoroughly envisioned and whether, and to what degree, the people of the Maghuin Dhonn, as well as all of those who have an affinity with the elemental forces of the world.
Naamah’s Kiss also continues Carey’s trend of more thoroughly exploring the use (and abuse) of magic in her fictional world. Moirin, unlike her predecessors, does indeed possess a powerful magic that is a legacy of her people, and as the novel progresses she finds it both a blessing and a burden. It’s key to who she is as a person, and yet it is also a destiny that she must fulfill if she is to maintain any sense of herself as a daughter of the Maghuin Dhonn. Just as importantly, she also recognizes that sexual desire is a key part of that destiny and that, through it, she can heal wounds and encourage people to become better versions of themselves.
As with all of Carey’s works set in this work, Naamah’s Kiss is about many things: duty, destiny, family, desire, death, and war. What’s more, the story manages to be both intensely personal and also epic in scope, with a final moment with the dragon that is as moving and beautiful as one could ask for in an epic fantasy. Somehow, Carey manages to weave all of these various strands together into a coherent whole that leaves you, like someone who has visited the Night Court in the City of Elua, you find yourself both sated and wanting more. No matter how many times you enter the world of Terre D’Ange, it always manages to surprise you.
I’m already very much immersed in the next volume in Moirin’s journey, Naamah’s Curse, and I very much look forward to sharing my thoughts on it with all of you. Stay tuned!