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Kushiel's Justice by Jacqueline Carey

Published by Warner Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

At the end of Kushiel's Scion, Imriel de la Courcel no Montreve returned home to Terre d'Ange, that land which is not precisely France yet partakes so much of French culture, in order to do his dynastic duty which had frightened him to the point he would run away to Tiberium as a student in its fabled University. After his experiences as a soldier in the siege of the Caerdiccan (Italian) city of Lucca, he has become convinced of the absolute importance of civic virtue, even when it proves unpleasant.

After all, he tells himself, he will be neither the first nor the last prince of a noble family to enter a dynastic marriage. And Terre d'Ange desperately needs the ties of blood with Alba to continue into future generations, an arrangement complicated by the Alban tradition of reckoning descent matrilineally. Rather than passing from father to son and daughter, Alban descent passes through the children of one's sisters. As a result, the daughters of Queen Ysandre of Terre d'Ange and her husband Drustan, Cruarch of Alba, will not be able to pass on their father's title. That honor will go to the son of his sister, and in the third generation to the children of the sister of Drustan's nephew.

In order to tie that line of descent to Terre d'Ange, it was agreed that Drustan's nephew and heir Talorcan should marry Alais, younger sister of the dauphine (crown princess) Sidonie, and Imriel should marry Talorcan's sister Dorelei. She is a nice enough young woman, but hardly more than a girl, and Imriel was repelled by the thought of becoming entangled in a loveless marriage for the purposes of state. After his Caerdiccan experiances, he has determined that he can learn to love her. She is, after all, a nice young woman who clearly wants to see the best in him in spite of his shadowed past.

But before he can go off to Alba with his bride, he must learn the customs and usages of that land. Unlike Terre d'Ange with its vast libraries of written knowledge, Alba relies upon oral tradition for its most important matters. In fact, it is forbidden to write down the fundamental laws of Alban society, for it is believed that if these key precepts are put to paper, they will no longer live in the hearts and minds of the people, but rather become a dead thing of paper and ink. So Imriel and Alais must learn at the feet of an ollamh, a bard of the highest rank, equal to a king.

All this memorization will take time, which means that he and Alais will linger in Terre d'Ange for a number of months before either of them can undertake their nuptials with their future spouses. However, it does not consume all their time, and as a result there is more than enough time for Imriel to sample the rich erotic culture of his homeland's capital with various aristocratic relatives.

The dauphine Sdonie had always seemed to be an aloof and unattainable ice-maiden to Imriel, although as a member of the Royal Family he was able to laugh and joke about it even as he gave her the appropriate deference. But at the same time he was always painfully aware of his own legacy as the son of two of the worst traitors Terre d'Ange ever knew, a heritage that made more than a few nobles of the realm wish that he had been strangled in his cradle. As a result, he had made a personal oath of fealty to her on an impulse, an oath which had entangled him in some awkward confrontations, some grim and others humorous.

But he had never imagined that he would become romantically involved with her. Although he was a sufficiently distant cousin to her that a relationship would not have been regarded as incestuous, his being third in line for the throne had led him to regard Sidonie and Alais as being more like sisters than potential lovers. But when that protective illusion fell away, he discovered much to his surprise that the passion was mutual, not satisfied by a few casual dalliances in the course of the Game of Love as it is frequently played among the nobles of Terre d'Ange.

At the same time, both of them were painfully aware of the probable political repercussions should their affair become publicly known. The very thought of the accusations that would surely fly led both of them to scrutinize their feelings far more closely than the typical D'Angeline, questioning whether their passion was true or if it were merely an infatuation with the forbidden. Perhaps it would be best if they agreed to part, in hopes that it would prove to be nothing more than a summer fling and that it would fade like a summer blossom in autumn's chill.

So off Imriel went with Dorelei to Alba, having first wed her in a D'Angeline ceremony, but with the pledge that they would wed a second time in the Alban manner. Even as they crossed the Straits and visited with their Master, the oldest and dearest friend of Imriel's foster mother Phedre, dark omens seemed to hover over their ship. Yet Imriel only redoubled his determination to set his passion for Sidonie behind him and firmly attach his affections to his wife, who so clearly wanted the two of them to have a happy life together, if only in her rather simple Alban way rather than the studied passions of a D'Angeline.

But Alba can be a perilous land for those who are unfamiliar with its ways -- and Imriel's own unresolved feelings for Sidonie leave him particularly vulnerable to the ancient magics of the Maghuin Dhonn, the people of the Brown Bear, sometimes called Earth's Oldest Children. A people who regard Imriel's presence in Alba and his marriage to an Alban noblewoman with intense hostility for which they will provide no explanation, even when commanded under the most ancient traditions of the peoples of Alba. They refuse to make any bargain for the mannikin made from the soil upon which Imriel spilled his seed during the night, through which they make magics to control him, so an ollamh gives Imriel a charm of protection against their power.

However, magic always has its price, and sometimes it is in unpleasant side effects. Imriel feels oddly cut off from his own emotions, even from his own nature. Yet he reckons it a price he can live with if it puts an end to the dreams filled with mysterious yearnings, dreams which have already come close to luring him away from safety once already.

Then it is time for him and Dorelei to be wed a second time, in the manner of Alba. Unlike the graceful rituals of Terre d'Ange, an Alban wedding is a rather earthy thing, preceded by a bawdy all-night stag party in which the men drink and boast. And of course when one gets these high-spirited warriors, hardly removed from barbarism, drunk and excited, it's only a matter of time before the fights break out -- to the point that several of the guests at the wedding arrive with arms in slings and eyes blackened as a result.

Still, Imriel is determined to settle in and make this land his home, and that means winning the respect of his sworn men. Although he has been granted an estate when he wed Dorelei, he is in a sense "on probation" with the armsmen associated with it. To cement his position he must demonstrate his prowess at arms, and not in the sort of warfare he learned as a soldier in the siege of Lucca. Rather it is in cattle raids and similar skirmishes that the Albans prize skill, and he hits upon the idea of striking first instead of waiting for one of the neighboring holdings to move.

Amidst the high spirits that result, disaster strikes, in the form of a monstrous bear which attacks his pregnant wife, killing both Dorelei and their unborn son. Imriel seeks to bar the flight of the creature, only to be given wounds that nearly prove mortal. But the angelic strain in the folk of Terre d'Ange gives him strength where others would have perished, and he survives to be taken home to his native land, although he will bear the terrible scars across his chest for the rest of his life.

As he recovers, he knows that he must carry out one final act as an Alban lord: he must avenge the deaths of his loved ones and bring back their killer's head to lie at their feet in the burial mound so their spirits may rest easy. But that will be no easy task, for the bear-man of the Maghuin Dhonn has fled eastward, taking the emblems of a pilgrim and hiding amidst the Yeshuites streaming eastward to their promised kingdom in an icy land. That path must perforce cross through Skaldia, a land that has not been welcoming to D'Angelines since the death of the Skaldic hero Waldemar Selig in the battle in which Terre d'Ange crushed their attempted invasion.

Yet there can be no excuses for failing in this mission, so Imriel sets forth with a small group of allies, crossing the Flatlands in hopes of finding a pilgrim caravan into which they can insert themselves and not be recognized for what they are. But the Scaldic lord who oversees the pilgrims has gotten wind of their plans, and insists that since Berlik has passed this way as a pilgrim, he is protected by the same peace as any other pilgrim. So Imriel must find another way to get to Vralia to seek him.

That way includes a ship which becomes wrecked upon an island and a desperate struggle to build a seaworthy craft from the wreckage before the brutal winter of the Eastern Sea (what we would call t he Baltic) closes in and makes life impossible. But at length he arrives in Vralia and hears the story of how a local chieftan converted to the Yeshuite religion as a result of a vision promising victory under the sign of the cross and as a result was able to win a contested succession. But the dispute is not completely over, and amidst this atmosphere of suspicion Imriel's quest is balked yet again by false accusations of spying.

However, his desperate quest through a winter as brutal as any Russian winter in our own world finally comes to an ending that is not entirely happy, yet satisfying in its bittersweet way. For penance is often as critical to redemption as repentance, and the meting out of punishment can be an act of love. This was the lesson of Kushiel, the angel who was once the chief justicar of the One God, but loved his penitents too much.

Overall, the book is yet another extraordinary triumph of intricate worldbuilding. There are a few bobbles here and there, such as the use of modern Dutch, German and Russian forms which would not come into use until the modern era, instead of the correct medieval equivalents, and the use of "Morwen" for the name of one of the mysterious Maghuin Dhonn, a name which at least for me has such intense associations with J.R.R. Tolkien that I kept thinking about the character by that name in the Silmarillion, which got in the way of my ability to appreciate the character in this story on her own terms. But on the whole these are relatively minor quibbles, not deal-breakers.

Review posted April 15, 2009

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