Fantasy Classics: “Naamah’s Blessing” (by Jacqueline Carey)

Warning: Some spoilers for the novel follow.

And so we come at last to the finale of the Kushiel books (at least, those that have been written so far), in which Moirin finds herself faced with yet another challenge, this time to pursue the missing Prince Thierry to the lands known as Terra Nova, where he has disappeared into the jungle, along with several of his fellows. Throughout the book, Moirin must confront the consequences of her previous actions, and she must at last come face-to-face with her one-time lover and now enemy Raphael.

Though it ultimately does have a happy ending, there are a few sacrifices made along the way. There is, of course, Queen Jeanne, whose death in the previous novel continues to cast a long shadow. And, in this novel, we unfortunately witness the suicide of King Daniel who, falling into despair at the news of his son’s supposed death, takes his own life, leaving behind his beautiful young daughter. As a result of Daniel’s death, Moirin finds herself one of the few in the realm who genuinely has the young princess’s well-being at heart, and the scenes between them are some of the most heartwarming in the entire novel.

Of course, the central tragedy of the novel belongs to Raphael who, afflicted by his guilt over his mother and sister’s death–along with the shred of the fallen spirit Focalor that still inhabits his flesh–tries to set himself up as a god-king in Terra Nova, and it is only Moirin’s timely intervention that stops him. Raphael’s tragedy is that, ambitious and brilliant as he is, he seems unable to realize (or accept) his own limits. As a result, he continues to push at the boundaries of the possible and the acceptable, plunging so far into madness that there is ultimately no salvation for him except through death.

As with the other entries in the Kushiel series, this book probes as some of the most vexing questions with which humanity has to contend: do the gods have a purpose for us, and if so, what is it? How do we know what to do in any given circumstance? In this case, Moirin can gain only small glimpses of her destiny, granted to her by Jeanne, who has been given a slight ability to change and shape events as they transpire in the world of the living. Time and again, however, Moirin has to make her own choices and how that they do not lead her astray.

What I’ve always appreciated about this series is the way in which Carey continues, throughout its run, to expand her lens to take in almost every continent of this fictional world. In this case, she takes us to Terra Nova, most of which has obvious influences from both Aztec and Incan cultures. Given that those have always been particularly fascinating to me, I’m glad that we got to see their equivalent in this fantasy universe.

And, I’ll be honest, while at times the novel does fall a bit into the white savior narrative pattern (Carey is hardly alone in falling into this trap; see also: George RR Martin), it is refreshing to see a depiction of the ancient cultures of Mexico and South America that doesn’t simply exoticize the or focus on their blood sacrifices to the exclusion of all else. This is not to say that Carey glosses over them, however. Even Moirin, who feels a measure of revulsion at what she sees as barbarian practices, finally has to contend with the fact that there may well be times when the gods call for blood and that in such times the only things humans can do is to offer it.

And, just as importantly, she also paints us a portrait of a world in which the dark and terrible forces of colonialism were allowed to follow a different path. Thanks to the influence of those from Terre D’Ange, there is now a possibility that there can be friendly relations between the two continents. Indeed, one of the good things that Raphael does is to ensure that Old World diseases do not decimate New World populations. It’s nice to think that, in some point in the distant future in this world, there might be a more peaceful and verdant future than the one that we inhabit in ours.

Perhaps most importantly, the novel finally gives Moirin the happy ending that she’s longed for, reunited with her family in Alba yet also with one foot remaining in Terre D’Ange. As with its predecessors, this novel is very much about the power of female desire and female friendships. And, once again, it is the essential power of these things that saves Terra Nova, and perhaps the very world itself, from calamity.

As I’ve said before, I’ve been dreading reading this novel for a while, because it would mean that I’d finally come to the chronological end of the saga. Now that I’m here, I have to say that I do feel completely satisfied with the way that things have transpired, both for Moirin and for the realms of which she is a part. It’s always so nice to read a book in which the main character ends up happy, her grand destiny fulfilled. Grimdark has its place, but so do novels like these.

I’d be lying, though, if I said I didn’t harbor some hope that Carey will one day return to this world, perhaps with either a prequel series of a sequel. Though, as far a I know, she hasn’t said she’ll do either of those things, I continue to think about the many issues that these novels have raised. While I might have finished them, I have no doubt that these will be some of the books that I return to again and again, whenever I feel the need to immerse myself in a world of beauty and desire and of terrible destinies fulfilled.

I can offer no higher praise than that.

Fantasy Classics: “Naamah’s Curse” (by Jacqueline Carey)

Warning: Some spoilers follow.

I’ve now finished the second volume of Jacqueline Carey’s third trilogy, Naamah’s Curse. It probably goes without saying, but I really enjoyed this novel and I am, of course, hard at work reading the third.

The novel begins with Moirin setting out on her journey to catch up to her beloved Bao. Though she finds him, she is soon kidnapped and sent north into the vast country of Vralia. What follows is a series of adventures in which she meets a fanatical Yeshuite patriarch, his sensuous and sensitive nephew, a powerful witch who commands a deadly jewel, and a lord of assassins. Through it all, she must rely on her love of Bao to see her through, as well as her native powers and abilities.

Much as I wanted to savour this novel, to take my time and really lose myself in its sumptuous prose, as always I found myself pulled inexorably along by the story. Like its predecessors, it is largely episodic, in that Moirin goes from mishap to mishap, learning more about herself and about the world in which she lives with each iteration. Here, we learn more about the burgeoning power of Vralia, which has continued to grow in power and importance. In particular, we see that the vengeful patriarch has plans to use Moirin to launch a terrible crusade against Terre D’Ange. Given that I’ve often wondered how Carey’s world would look with a Christian nation, I found this development rather exciting and, while Moirin manages to circumvent the zealot’s efforts, it does suggest that there might yet be a confrontation between two of this world’s great powers. This storyline thus serves as a cautionary tale about the destructive power of religious zealotry and the reactionary condemnation of the pleasures of the body.

Like any unwilling epic heroine, Moirin finds herself caught up in forces and events much greater than she can at first imagine, and this is certainly the case when she pursues Bao into this world’s equivalent of the Himalayas. There she must confront a woman known as the Spider Queen, who has managed to take control of a powerful gem that has the power to command desire. There are echoes in this story of Phèdre’s journey into the heart of Drujan. Like her predecessor, Moirin finds herself faced with a truly dark magic, one that, while temporarily locally contained, has the potential to expand and damage the world. And, like her predecessor, she recognizes the fundamental humanity at the heart of this seemingly evil creature, showing us that even those who seem beyond the pale of comprehensibility have their own reasons (both good and bad) for doing what they do.

Much as I liked the stories about both Phèdre and Imriel, I identify with Moirin in ways that I never completely did in the case of the other heroes of the Kushiel saga. Moirin, for better or worse, gives her heart very quickly and easily to those with whom she comes into contact. Whether it is Bao (arguably her one true love) or any one of a dozen others, Moirin always gives freely of herself and of her gifts. Of course, this means that she frequently finds herself in scrapes that it takes quite a lot of effort to escape, but this is part of what makes her such a compelling and sympathetic hero. After all, it’s not necessarily a bad thing to give one’s love freely, even if the costs to oneself are frequently harsh and exacting.

Though the novel is largely full of joy, there are a few moments of genuine sadness, such as when Moirin hears that her beloved Jehanne has died in childbirth. Given that we have already been led to understand just how deeply she feels for the Queen of Terre D’Ange, this is a particularly devastating blow (the fact that it is delivered by the vengeful Vralian patriarch makes it all the more difficult to hear). This is one of those moments in the novel that is a profoundly human and universal one, as we are led to feel Moirin’s anguish that she wasn’t able to be there for the woman that she loved at the end of her life. The fact that Jehanne’s shade manages to visit her in her dreams only partially offsets the tragedy of this storyline, though it is rather nice seeing Moirin get at least a little bit of closure.

I have one minor complaint about the novel, and that it falls a little too much into the white savior narrative that is such a problematic aspect of the west’s relationship with the cultures of the east. In this case, Moirin’s disgust at the caste system that operates in this world’s equivalent of India/Nepal is, from a western perspective, understandable, as is the fact that she is the catalyst that sees the beginning of the undoing of the oppression of the untouchables. As gratifying as this is, however, I do think that we should be wary of these sorts of fantasies that allow western characters to be the primary catalyst for social change.

Despite those flaws, Naamah’s Curse is a stirring reflection on the power of desire to provide a balm to the human spirit. As always, Carey’s command of her prose is powerful, and the sex scenes in this book are even more intense and visceral than in the other installments of the series. However, the true emotional heart of the novel is the relationship between Bao and Moirin. Much as the Kushiel series shows the power of desire, it also shows us how much a part of the human condition love is, and how central it can be to the ultimate triumph of good over evil. Carey excels once again at making us feel just a little bit better about the world.

I have to say, though, that I’m approaching the final volume of this series with some trepidation. After all, it will mean the final farewell to this beautiful world and all of its enchanting mystique.

Fantasy Classics: “Naamah’s Kiss” (by Jacqueline Carey)

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!

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.

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

Having survived his ill-fated adventures in Tiberium and Caerdicca Unitas, young Imriel returns to Terre D’Ange hoping to begin life anew. All too soon, however, he finds himself falling desperately, madly, dangerously in love with his cousin Sidonie, the daughter of Queen Ysandre and thus heir to the throne. Desperate to avoid the treason that his mother was infamous for, trying to be the good person that he knows he can be, he agrees to a marriage with Dorelei, an Alban princess. In doing so, however, both he and Sidonie violate Blessed Elua’s most sacred precept, “love as thou wilt,” and in so doing set in motion a series of events that will leave lives ruined and ultimately lead Imriel on a desperate quest into the frozen north in the search for both vengeance and absolution.

The Kushiel books have always been known for their explicit descriptions of sex, and this one is no exception, and the sex scenes between Sidonie and Imriel are particularly graphic. These portions of the book definitely slip into the zone of genuine erotica, and that is definitely a compliment. Carey has an almost uncanny ability to capture both the physical rush of sexual pleasure as well as the deeper emotional and philosophical implications that almost always attend upon the carnal meeting of two bodies. It’s this combination of both the titillating and the deeply meaningful that makes these books such a pleasure to read and that marks them as something unlike almost anything else that has ever been attempted in modern fantasy.

If the original Phédre trilogy was characterized by its notoriously byzantine plotting, Imriel’s story is far more narratively slim than its predecessors, but that doesn’t detract from the pleasures of the story. Indeed, Imriel is as compelling a hero as Phédre, though of course he carries around scars that are significantly different than hers, and of course he has to contend with his heritage as the son of one of the realm’s most notorious traitors and with his bloodline as a scion of Kushiel. Thus, while we might not always agree with or condone Imriel’s actions, we do nevertheless understand them as at least in part a function and result of the tangled skein of his inheritance and his experiences.

That being said, Carey still manages to explore some of the weightier philosophical issues that have always been one of the most enjoyable aspects of the series as a whole. As he always has, Imriel strives to be good, to do the things that everyone wants him to do, even if that means going against his own heart’s desire. The novel constantly asks us to consider how we would respond if we were to be placed in the same situation. Would any one of us be able to put aside true love for the betterment of others, even if in doing so we might inadvertently endanger more lives? More significantly, the novel asks whether there is ever the possibility that knowing the outcome of the future

And, as always, Carey’s world-building is nothing short of flawless. In this novel, we get a more in-depth look at the life and customs of Alba, whose people are deeply proud of their heritage and yet also deeply superstitious. We get glimpses of the dark magic that is a part of their history, particularly among the bear-witches of the Maghuin Dhonn. We also get a deep look at the land of Vralia (an analogue of Russia), in which the Yeshuites have started to establish a kingdom of their own. One of the things that has always fascinated me about Carey’s world is its lack of Christianity as a hegemonic faith. In Kushiel’s Justice, we get the first glimmerings that this might not be the case for much longer, as it is increasingly clear that the Yeshuites wish to create their own nation with its own laws. The real question is how this will impact the doings of Terre D’Ange, as well as the wider world of which they are both a part.

Because, of course, there is as always an element of politics in everything that Imriel does. Though they hover in the background to a greater extent than previous entries in the series, as the novel draws to a close we get the sense that Imriel and Sidonie and all of those that we love will once again find themselves caught up in a maelstrom of intrigue and, just possibly, bloodshed. After all, Imriel’s mother is still abroad and still part of the Guild, and her legacy taints his every move. And, looming over it all, there is the fact that his relationship with Sidonie, whether conducted through marriage or not, could well rip asunder the fragile peace of Terre D’Ange.

In the end, Kushiel’s Justice is a masterful exploration of the intertwined nature of desire, duty, love, magic, and politics. It is a novel that both calls out to be savoured like the finest wine yet also gulped down in one sitting (though, given its length, that would be a tall order indeed). Once you fall under its hypnotic, sensual spell, you’ll find yourself reaching the last page and wandering how it is that you got there and where the day has gone. You’ll suffer right along with Imriel, but you will also experience the true, searing power of love and desire in all of their myriad joys.

I’m currently diving into the last volume of the Imriel trilogy, Kushiel’s Mercy, and it already feels like it’s going to be at once terribly tragic and tremendously satisfying. If the jacket is any indication, we’re finally going to get to see Melisande again, and I am both dreading and desiring to see how this transpires. And, of course, it goes without saying that I am very much looking forward to seeing how the relationship between Sidonie and Imriel turns out, and whether either of them will be able to enjoy the love they have long sought.

Stay tuned!