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Kushiel's Mercy by Jacqueline Carey

Cover design by Don Puckey

Published by Grand Central Publishing

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

After having married for duty only to lose the bride he learned to love and crossing half a continent to avenge her murder, Imriel de la Courcel no Montreve returns to his native land knowing that his love for the dauphine Sidonie is no mere fascination with the forbidden, as both of them had half hoped. No, it is true love, and in trying to turn his back upon it, he may well have violated the first precept of the Blessed Elua: "Love as thou wilt."

So it is time to confront their affection for one another and what it will mean. For nobody will forget that Imriel is the son of two of the worst traitors Terre d'Ange has ever known, and many people suspect him of personal disloyalty in spite of the fact that he was sent away as an infant to grow up in the Sanctuary of Elua, knowing nothing of his heritage. The thought of him having intimate access to the heir to the throne will not set well, particularly on those who lost loved ones in the terrible battles his mother provoked through her endless scheming for no better reason than love for the game of politics.

However, they can only keep their relationship secret for so long, and the further they go, the more sinister it will appear when it finally is discovered. Which means that they must confront the Queen, Ysandre de la Courcel, whose ability to hold grudges is right up there with Eilzabeth Winton, Queen of the Star Kingdom of Manticore, in David Weber's Honor Harrington novels.

As they expected, her response is not exactly one of joy. Far from it, she seeks any shred of evidence that treachery is afoot, that Imriel has somehow wormed himself into Sidonie's company and turned her head as part of some sinister scheme. To prove the sincerity of their feelings for one another, Imriel and Sidonie meet with the priests of the temple of Elua, separately and together, and testify as to their attempts to get over their feelings for one another and what came of those efforts.

At length Queen Ysandre can draw only one conclusion -- that their love is indeed true and to forcibly separate them would be an act of grave heresy. However, she places a harsh condition on them: she will not acknowledge their relationship, and should the two of them wed, Sidonie will lose her claim upon the throne, which will pass to her younger sister Alais. Harsh as this pronouncement of the crown may be, the queen suggests that she would be willing to relent under one condition, namely, that Melisande Shahrizai, Imriel's tratorious mother, be brought back to Terre d'Ange to face justice for her crimes.

Even as Imriel and Sidonie settle into discovering one another's tastes and delights, and as they set to formulating plans to locate the missing traitor, a suitor comes to the City of Elua seeking Sidonie's hand in a formal dynastic marriage. He is Astegal, general and scion of Carthage's House of Sarkal, and he brings rich gifts as token of what Terre d'Ange stands to gain through an alliance with the wealthy and powerful Carthage, who are at war with Aragonia (Spain), a traditional ally of Terre d'Ange.

Although his suit is politely declined, he remains in the City of Elua in order that his Chief Horologist may show the D'Angelines a wonder on the night of a total lunar eclipse. This process involves setting twelve mirrors around the perimeter of the city, and a thirteenth in Elua's Square in the city's heart. On the night of the promised astronomical show, the Square is packed with curious onlookers, and as a member of the royal family Imriel has a choice position close to the central mirror. But just as it is about to happen, one of Astega'ls servants comes up to him, whispers that he is lucky to have a mother who loves him, and pierces his guts with a sharp needle.

For the next month Imriel raves in madness so severe he has to be tied to his bed to keep him from harming himself and others. But when the next full moon comes and he returns to his senses, he discovers that a more subtle madness has overtaken the City of Elua and all those he has loved. Terre d'Ange is now allied with Carthage in their war against Aragonia, and so far as everyone knows, always has been. Worse, Sidonie has left for Carthage as Astregal's wife, and nobody remembers that she and Imriel ever were lovers. When he tries to object, his words are dismissed as delusory, nothing more than a relic of his own month of madness.

By careful inquiries he discovers that his old nemesis Barquiel L'Envers, who was on his estate in the province of Namarre on the fateful night, has been untouched by the delusion which has gripped the court. Although the old man is not precisely overjoyed to be assisting someone he has long regarded as an enemy, he finds the sudden change in the memories and attitudes of everyone in the capital most disturbing, and is willing to lead a resistance movement. However, it is but a distraction to take attention away from Imriel's real mission.

And that is to go to the island of Cytheria (Cyprus) and seek out his mother, who has become the mistress of the governor there, Ptolemyy Solon. A man wise in many ancient arts, the "Wise Ape of Cytheria" may well have the key to whatever dire magic has addled the wits of everyone in the D'Angeline capital.

He does, and the truth proves even more foul than Imriel had imagined possible -- a spell that enslaves a desert demon, a spirit of malice, by torturing a baby as bait. Attempting to break it incorrectly will instead only make things worse, possibly beyond repair. But to break the spell, Imriel must infiltrate the royal palace of Carthage, no small task when his face and manner are known by several key individuals, including the vile Chief Horologist himself.

The solution to this problem is to assume the identity of another, a person not known to anyone who will suspect his motives. And a mere act or seeming will not suffice -- he must become the other to the point that he himself believes it.

This masquerade is one of the most interesting sections of the novel, since it like all the previous installments in the trilogy is written entirely in the first person, from Imriel's point of view. Which means that when Imriel accepts the spell Ptolemy Solon puts on him and begins to think he is the dandyish young Leander, his narrative voice shifts accordingly, with only a few hints here and there of his true identity. And even those are handled so deftly that they feel like deliberate artistic choices on the part of the author rather than slips of carelessness.

So off "Leander" goes to Carthage, knowing only that he is supposed to gain access to the dauphine Sidonie and find certain items, without knowing why. At first he is not favorably impressed with Sidonie, and wants nothing more than to smack down her hauteur by planting a kiss upon her oh-so-precious cheek. But as he begins to inveigle his way into her court by the ruse of playing chess with her, he becomes progressively more impressed with the intellect he can glimpsed under the deadening spell which controls her mind -- and thus becomes all the more determined to find some way to free her from it.

But just as he is starting to win her trust, Astegal summons Sidonie to New Carthage, as he has renamed the Aragonian capital, announcing that he wants his wife at his side. So "Leander" must find a plausible reason to follow the royal household, one that will not raise the incipient suspicions of the Chief Horologist, who also seems to function as a sort of security officer. Of course that means having to start all over at the job of working his way past the layers of security surrounding Sidonie.

Sometimes speed can be as deadly as delay, particularly when one part of one's plan races ahead of the others. Remember that identity-switch spell? Ptolemy Solon set up the counter-spell with the assumption that gaining Sidonie's trust would be the last step, occurring only after he would have accomplished everything else and was ready to flee. Except Sidonie's strong will worked past the spell on her much sooner than anticipated, and suddenly Imriel is without that protection. Although the visual illusion of Leander's appearance remains, he is no longer confident of his ability to present the sense of being Leander, whose temperament is so utterly unlike his own.

So it becomes essential to get Sidonie out of New Carthage immediately, necessitating a desperate scheme that nearly gets all of them killed. Even then, the way home to Terre d'Ange is not clear, and they must first fight their way past a Carthaginian army commanded by Astegal himself. But defeating him is not enough, for they still have to defeat the hideous sorcery that binds the City of Elua to delusion, a madness which is rapidly plunging the entire country of Terre d'Ange into civil war.

Overall this novel makes a good capstone to what has been a series of outstanding books of intricate worldbuilding. My one and only major reservation about it was the shifting of magic to front and center. In the earlier books, the magical had a sense of the numinous, of being associated with the power of the gods who cannot be commanded or bargained with. To me, that factor set these novels apart from the large number of fantasy novels in which magic is effectively an alternate system of science and technology, operating on predictable principles that can be learned. In this novel, we see a movement away from the numinous actions of the gods in the lives of mortals for good or ill, and into just that sort of mortal manipulation of esoteric principles to gain predictable results. And the determination of Imriel and Sidonie to found a school of magic to research and disseminate the principles of learnable magic seems very much like the transformation of magic into an alternate form of science and technology, and thus a major break from the established tone of the series.

I can only wonder whether Jacqueline Carey will continue to write in this universe, and if so how she will take it now that she has established the existence of a system of magic that can be used at will by humans.

Review posted May 10, 2009.

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