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Kushiel's Scion by Jacqueline Carey

Cover art by John Jude Palencar

Cover design by Don Puckey

Published by Warner Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

The original Kushiel trilogy was a tour de force written entirely in the first person in the voice of a courtesan of a magical land that was not exactly France, yet partook of many of the graces of la belle France. However, given the nature of the conclusion to the third book, it seemed to preclude the possibility of any further stories of Phedre no Delaunay, countess of Montreve. How could one possibly top the glory of having held the Name of God in one's mind and carried it from the headwaters of the Nile to the Channel Islands and used it to best a fallen angel and set free one's earliest and best friend from a terrible curse?

The answer, as it turned out, was to move to the next generation. Imriel no Montreve de la Courcel has his own inner demons, and there's plenty of story fodder to be found in those dark shadows of his painful past. One of the chief complaints leveled against the original trilogy was how Phedre never seemed to acquire any scars, physical or mental, from the various horrible experiences she endured in each novel. I was never bothered by it -- to me it seemed obvious that her extraordinary healing powers were supernatural in origin, part of what it meant to be Kushiel's Chosen, but apparently many other readers considered it a major suspension of disbelief issue. By contrast, Imriel has no such magical protections, nor did he have the benefit of the training Phedre received.

And the horrors that he endured in the zenana (harem) of the Mahrkrgir in Darsanga have left deep scars upon his psyche, even more damaging than the ones upon his body. After having his innocence torn from him in the most brutal manner possible, he is uneasy about everything related to sex. At an age when most D'Angeline youths begin to explore their sexuality with one another, he shies away in dread of the dark longings which burn within him, terrified that if he lets them loose, he will surely act out the horrors he witnessed and endured. He thinks his only hope lies in remaining aloof from all others.

Worse, although he has been fostered by Phedre no Delauney and her consort, he is painfully aware of his heritage as the son of two of the nation's worst traitors. In particular his mother, Melisande Shahrizai, played treason like a game, setting one person after another up to bid for the throne when it was still thought that the old king Ganelon and his heir, his grnaddaughter Ysandre, were sufficiently weak that they could be toppled. And when they proved stronger than she'd anticipated, she then betrayed her erstwhile allies in order to save her own skin. When she was finally fingered by a member of her own family, she fled the country and took refuge in La Serenissima, a sort of alternate Venice where the old gods are still worshipped, particularly Asherat-of-the-Sea, an import from the Levant who was worshipped by the Phonecians.

As a result of this painful past, Imriel is fairly consumed with the question of what exactly it means to be good. As a Prince of the Blood, third in line for the throne, he has been given a number of estates by the Queen, so that he might have an income appropriate to his rank and station in life. When he is visiting the smallest of them, Lombelon, he encounters a handsome young man at work in the orchards and is taken by his agility and beauty. Imriel soon learns Maslin's own sad story -- a by-blow of Lombelon's former lord, Isidore d'Aiglemort, he was to have been acknowledged and settled with the estate upon his majority. But D'Aiglemort became entangled in one of Melisande's schemes, and although he redeemed himself in battle, he died before he could acknowledge his son. As a result, Maslin now faces a life of toiling as a common nobody, yet with the bitter taste of what might have been forever in his mouth.

Imriel's immediate response is to want to make it right, to give Maslin his lost birthright. But Phedre cautions him that going about it too hastily may anger Maslin instead of making him happy, by creating the impression that Imriel is tossing him a sop. So Imriel lets Phedre make careful inquiries, verifying that D'Aiglemort did indeed regard Maslin as his son and intend to settle Lombelon upon him. Only when all things are cleared through the proper channels is Maslin formally given title to the estate.

If Imriel had hoped that it would set things to rights, he is sadly disappointed when Phedre's worst fears are realized -- Maslin feels humiliated by the gift, angered that he is placed in a position of having to be perpetually grateful. The scene reminded me of a bit in the Hush Returns Batman storyline in which the Joker remarks that some people can never forget a favor, and some people can never forgive you for it. And Maslin, with the touchy pride of someone who has been humiliated too often, is just the sort of person who regards a favor bestowed as an unforgivable slap in the face, a way of rubbing his nose in his own dependency.

But Imriel gets little time to brood about his gesture of goodwill gone so terribly wrong, for his Shahrizai cousins are coming to the estate of Montreve as Phedre had agreed with Queen Ysandre. They have a very different outlook on life, and a taste for what is poetically termed "the sharper pleasures." In his summer in their company, Imriel begins to hesitantly explore the sexuality that he had fearfully repressed -- but the barriers of fear remain, and he can go only so far before he draws back in hesitation.

When his sixteenth birthday arrives at last and he may legitimately patronize the Night Court, the Thirteen Houses of superbly trained courtesans who dwell upon Mont Nuit, some of his friends in the City of Elua, the D'Angeline capital, begin to talk about holding a mock kidnapping and taking him to taste the pleasures of the Night-Blooming Flowers. But when Imriel gets wind of it, he quickly rejects the possibility, fearing (and probably quite rightly) that his memories of having been kidnapped in fact by slavers as a child may well cause him to react far more fiercely than the situation merits, to the sorrow of everyone involved.

Phedre understands, and gives her foster son a token to Balm House, dedicated to healing. After some hesitation he goes there, where the lovely adept Emmeline teaches him that all aspects of his body and of sexuality are sacred. But while he gains healing of the dark hungers that have been tormenting him, it is by no means a complete cure-all. No, there will be no easy answers, and the scars of Darsanga remain within his soul for him to contend with.

And then it is time to return to the countryside and to Montreve, this time with a new guest -- Eamonn, son of the Royal Admiral and one of Terre d'Ange's Alban allies, the Lady Grainne mac Conor, who rules over the Dalriada, one of the Alban tribes. Eamonn is a merry sort whose easy laughter and joy enable him to make friends wherever he goes. As a result, that winter Imriel decides to spend the Longest Night at the Royal Palace, enjoying the festivities there, rather than keeping the Vigil of Elua at the temple with Joscelin as he had the two previous years.

However, his choice of costume for the masque sends inadvertent signals, echoing as it does the costume worn by one of Melisande's catspaws years before Imriel was even born. No more than he has sworn an impetuous oath of perpetual fidelity to his cousin the Dauphine Sidonie, he is given a message of a most sinister sort, hinting of conspirators who would like to back him in a bid for the throne. Determined to show he is no traitor, he seeks to chase down the messenger, only to inadvertently interfere with others' attempt to pursue in ways that aroused questions of his intentions.

Although he was ultimately cleared, and the Queen made an official pronouncement that he was the victim of an ill-considered jest rather than being approached by a genuine conspiracy, Imriel cannot shake his sense of disquiet. It is made even worse when Eamonn departs to attend the famed University of Tiberium, hoping to acquire learning from the fabled city that was once seat of a vast empire. When the Queen begins talking about the possibility of making several marriages that will help ensure D'Angeline influence in the Alban succession, which is matrilineal, Imriel's discomfort grows, for part of the plan involves marrying him off to Drustan's niece, a girl he finds sweet but rather childish.

Dreading the prospect, Imriel decides to follow Eamonn to Tiberium and attend the University as a gentleman scholar, accompanied by a single armsman rather than the retinue that a Prince of the Blood would have. Because he wants to have people respect him on his own merits rather than his rank, he decides to present himself merely as Imriel no Montreve, which is technically true, if not the entirity of the truth. In addition, he hopes that presenting himself as an impoverished nobleman will enable him to discover the identity of the unknown teachers who instructed Anafiel Delaunay in the arts of covertcy.

He has hardly arrived in Tiberium but he encounters Deccus Fulvius, a powerful member of the Senate. And a member of the Restorationist faction, which seeks to restore the old Republic, and by that means bring it back to its former glory. Not exactly the most auspicious acquaintance to be made by a young man who wants only to be able to study quietly, but Imriel seems to have a talent at attracting dangerous company.

Imriel has better luck at the University, where he soon locates his old friend Eamonn and is admitted to study by his teacher, Master Piero. The University of Tiberium does not operate on the system most American readers will be familiar with. There are no formal departments or systematic curricula for students to follow. Instead, each student is accepted by a master who will become primarily responsible for his or her instruction -- and yes, there are women scholars as well as men. One of those women is Brigetta, an intense young woman of the Skaldi who is trying to soak up as much knowledge as she can, in spite of having an imperfect grasp of the Caerdicci tongue.

While Master Piero leads his students to explore moral philosophy at its roots, teasing out the nature of good and evil, of loyalty and love and duty, Imriel gets another kind of education when Deccus Fulvius invites him to witness a gladiatorial game. To Imriel's astonishment, he quickly becomes the object of the attentions of the Senator's wife, Claudia Fulvia. For it turns out that Imriel's inquiries about the identity of Anafiel Delaunay's teachers has attracted the attention of the Unseen Guild, an ancient order of spies and covert operators, and Claudia is to sound him out for possible initiation. That process of sounding out includes not only having Imriel pose for a painting at a noted woman artist's atelier, but also a secret love affair so torrid it leaves the young D'Angeline wrung out and exhausted. And given that Tiberians do not share D'Angeline attitudes about affaires l'amour, it is a very dangerous one indeed.

Just to make things even more puzzling, the entrance to the insula (apartment house) in which Imriel and his armsman take lodgings becomes the haunts of a Cynic beggar-philosopher who calls himself Canis. He lives in a barrel, subsisting upon handouts and dispensing aphorisms. At first Imriel regards Canis mostly as a nuisance and humors him, but a sequence of suspicious events leads to a different conclusion. Someone has sent this ragged little man as Imriel's protector. Someone from the Unseen Guild, or someone else? And for what purpose?

But Imriel's idyl in Tiberium is not long to last, for the maneuvers of politics soon brings trouble to the University, in the form of plans to cut its funding. It's almost predictable that the students will not be happy at the news, and that some of them will be apt to make their displeasure known most forcefully. But Claudia Fulvia warns him that all is not as it seems, that the Unseen Guild is going to manipulate the students' wrath to create a riot, and that if he is wise, he will keep himself and those he cares about off the streets.

Simple enough a warning -- except that Imriel does not think only of himself and his armsman, but of Eamonn and his other friends in Master Piero's circle. So off he heads in hopes of finding them before it's too late, his armsman dutifully following behind him. An act of self-sacrificing love which nearly costs him his life, placing him right in the path of an assassin who had hoped to use the riot as a cover. Although Imriel escapes harm by virtue of the Casseline disciplines he has learned from Joscelin, his armsman is not so lucky. Badly injured, he lies near death and is despairing of being of any use without his ability to wield a sword.

In the aftermath of the riot, Imriel takes him to the temple of Asclepius, Tiberian god of healing, and while there finds a measure of healing himself. Bidden to stay the night, he receives a visitation by the god, who tells him he must learn to bear his scars with pride, and that even a stunted tree seeks the light. Although Imriel is puzzled by these gnomic sayings, but comes to realize that he has been running away from the responsibilities of his rank and station, and that it is time to go home to Terre d'Ange and the dynastic marriage he had fled.

First he wants to attend the wedding of one of his friends among Master Piero's circle. Lucius Tadius is a member of the leading families of the city of Lucca, and the grandson of a famous commander. But Lucius is more of a thinker than a doer, and has been haunted by his grandfather's wrath for most of his life. But recently he has developed some intestinal fortitude, enough to overcome his hesitation to wed a certain young woman because he knows she is in love with another.

But not soon enough, for even as their party arrives at Lucca from Tiberium, they discover the city under siege by an odius rival suitor, Valpetra. He has stolen Lucius' bride and forced her into a marriage, and intends to force the city of Lucca to accept him as its ruler upon that basis. But Valpetra did not reckon upon the power of the gate to the underworld which lies within Lucca's belltower, and which they opened in the process of torching the place.

Thus begins a nightmarish battle, as Gallius Tadius takes over his grandson's body and leads the men of Lucca in a spirited defense. The training seems to be something straight out of the military science fiction of John Ringo or Tom Kratman, grittily realistic in both the details of the process and the unit cohesion that it produces. Imriel discovers things about himself that he had never suspected, and learns that he can push himself far beyond what he thought to have been his limits.

On the whole, this novel is another stellar addition to a superbly realized world. There were a few bobbles here and there, mostly dealing with names -- it seemed odd to find classical Latin names coexisting with modern Italian forms, although I did consider that it might be possible for the upper classes to deliberately retain the old forms while the laboring classes would permit their nomenclature to become worn down with time as it did in our own world. The only major problem I had was with the surname of the young man whom Lucius' promised bride also loved -- although Ponzi is a perfectly good Italian name, it has far too many associations with Carlos Ponzi and his notorious scam which just didn't fit with the world of this novel. However, given that the character appears only once, and then as a corpse, it's a small quibble.

Review posted March 8, 2009

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