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Naamah's Blessing by Jacqueline Carey

Cover art by Alan Ayers

Published by Grand Central Publishing

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

At the end of Naamah's Curse, Moirin had helped the Rani Amitra and her people successfully defeat the notorious Falconer and his Spider Queen. She had prevailed upon the Rani to change the rules that kept certain groups of people on the margins of society as untouchables, defiled and defiling. The genesis of the Spider Queen's bitterness toward society in her sufferings as an untouchable provided sufficient impetus for people to reconsider long-held traditions. However, I'd wondered whether those changes would last more than a single generation, or if the commitment to change would in time erode away -- and allowed that we the readers would probably never see the answer, since Moirin was obviously heading back to Terre d'Ange.

In the opening of this book, all my expectations are indeed realized. Moirin is indeed coming back to the famous port city of Marsilikos (Marsailles), having caught a ride with a Bhodistani ship, and she's thinking back to her friend the Rani Amitra and wondering how the reforms of the treatment of those without caste are going. But Moirin's also dealing with other concerns -- in particular how the Lady of Marsilikos will react to her return. The last time Moirin was in Marsilikos, the Lady was furious over the damage to the reputation of her brother, Raphael de Mereliot, which she blamed upon Moirin.

However, that past unpleasantness proves a relatively minor hurdle, and Moirin and Bao are soon at the gates of the City of Elua and have to deal with the death of Queen Jehanne, the beautiful and willful woman who had been lover to both Moirin and Raphael. Although it's been three years, their absence abroad means that they haven't had to confront it at a personal level. Worse, Moirin is blaming herself, certain that if only she had stayed behind, she could've used her powers to enable Raphael to save Jehanne's life. Bao tries to point out that by going Moirin saved an enormous number of lives that would've been lost if the entrapped dragon hadn't been freed and the treacherous nobleman's rebellion hadn't been stopped, but his moral calculus of lives lost and saved makes Moirin feel better instead of worse.

It doesn't help that King Daniel is so clearly trapped in grief for his lost wife, to the point that he's unable to face their daughter Desirée. She's the very image of her mother: beautiful, precociously intelligent, and so willful her nurses and tutors often despair of ever teaching her wisdom and discipline -- and in desperate need of the love her father cannot bear to give when just looking at her tears at the wound in his heart and soul.

When Moirin proves able to reach Desirée and persuade her to actually want to learn, the ladies of the nursery are astonished, yet pleased. They let Moirin bring in a priestess who's particularly skilled in dealing with difficult people, and it soon seems that Desirée's temper is actively improving. King Daniel is so impressed that he wants to make Moirin his daughter's protector, to which end Moirin is to swear the Montrevan Oath.

However, in a court such as that of Terre d'Ange, ambition and danger lie everywhere. In his grief and resulting depression, King Daniel has entrusted much of the everyday business of ruling to a cousin, Rogier Courcel. He seems a pleasant enough sort, but meeting him leaves Moirin sufficiently uneasy to have her doubts. Those doubts are confirmed when Moirin meets his son Tristan and observes not only the manipulative way in which he treats Desirée, but the way in which he pursues a chambermaid when he believes himself unobserved, pressuring her over her protestations until she relents and gives him what he wants.

But even as Moirin and Bao are trying to find a way to tell King Daniel that his minister is not to be trusted, things take a turn for the worse. A ship arrives from Terra Nova (the Americas) with bad news that is to be delivered to the king himself. Prince Thierry, the dauphin, has failed to return from an exploratory trip and is presumed dead. The king is visibly devastated by this news, to the point that Moirin is certain he should not be permitted to be alone in his despair, but when he firmly dismisses her, there is nothing she can do to argue the matter.

Her concerns about the king's mental condition are proved right that evening, when she and Bao are awakened by a terrible commotion outside. All the bells of the city are tolling, and people are running along the river with torches, desperately searching the river. At length the Royal Guard draws from it a body -- King Daniel. There can be no question that he intended to end his life, for his pockets are found to be full of stones.

Now a regent must be appointed for young Desirée until she is of age and can take the throne in her own right. Given that Rogier Courcel is generally viewed as having done a good job in his capacity as Lord Minister for King Daniel, he's the obvious choice. Although Moirin tries to air her concerns about this man's fitness for the office, her own problematical background and upbringing leads to her judgment being discounted by this ancient and sophisticated court. Soon Lord Rogier is making all manner of changes in Desirée's upbringing, none obviously sinister, yet all clearly intended to crush her spirit and remold her into a pliable, will-less puppet who will gladly marry his son Tristan and in effect allow his line to take over the throne.

It becomes increasingly clear that Moirin's in a trap -- no matter what she does, she'll end up foresworn, and will lose her diadh-anam, her indwelling spirit of magic, forever. And if that happens, her beloved Bao will die, for Master Lo Feng used a part of Moirin's diadh-anam to restore Bao to life after his death at the hands of a treacherous sorcerer.

And then Queen Jehanne appears to her in a dream with news -- Prince Thierry is in fact alive. She can't tell Moirin more -- there are rules that govern the afterlife, and one of them regulates what information the dead can pass to the living. But Moirin's only hope of fulfilling her oath is to set forth on a daring mission across the Western Sea to Terra Nova and seek the only person who has the authority to put things back to rights in the royal court.

Equipping such a voyage is no small mater, and Moirin turns to her ally Balthasar Shahrizai to fund it. He had been instrumental in funding the original mission that went awry, and as such feels somewhat responsible for what went wrong.

So they set off under the command of Captain Septimus Rousse (no doubt a descendant or relation in some degree of Admiral Quintillius Rousse from Kushiel's Dart and its immediate sequels). But they've hardly sailed out of sight of land before they discover they have a traitor in their midst. Edouard Durel is caught attempting to steal the captain's logbook, a theft that could leave the ship lost in the trackless ocean, its crew condemned to an agonizing death.

When keelhauling fails to get him to confess, Balthasar Shahrizai takes him into hand. As a scion of Kushiel, Balthasar belongs to a tradition in which pleasure and pain are intermingled, in which punishment can be an act of love. His interrogation of Edouard is at once fascinating and horrifying, as he probes into the man's character for answers that go far beyond the obvious -- not just who put him up to this crime, but who is he attempting to protect by committing such a heinous act. When Edouard's made his full confession, the captain takes him prisoner so that he can be tried in Terre d'Ange, but Balthasar promises that his wife and children will not suffer for his crime (I must say that I was very relieved to read this, after having read several books in which making pariahs of entire families, including innocent children, was portrayed as a good object lesson to deter others, but group punishment and collective guilt are very triggery subjects for me).

The remainder of the voyage is uneventful, and at last they arrive in Orgullo del Sol, the Aragonian trade port on the edge of the Nahuatl Empire. Needless to say, they are not pleased to see a second d'Angeline ship on their shores, for they fear that the d'Angelines are trying to cut into their trade. They go to great efforts to dissuade the d'Angelines, initially trying to horrify with tales of barbarities and then by trying to portray the d'Angelines in a bad light to the locals (both Aragonians and the Nahuatl are rather prudish and tend to view the d'Angeline traditions of love as somewhat repellant and immoral). Still, Moirin learns that Prince Thierry and much of his company traveled south in pursuit of a mysterious empire that may or may not exist.

However, to make the trip they must first gain the permission of the Emperor, which means traveling to their capital of Tenochtitlan. It's a lengthy overland journey into mountains, but that's not the worst of it. According to the Aragonians, this city is the center of their barbarous religion, where the blood of untold thousands pours down the temple steps. They find a city reminiscent of La Serenissima (Venice), seeming to float upon its salty lake. Although the Aragonians have introduced the worship of Mithras Sol Invictus and in doing so have convinced them to substitute the Aragonian rites of bull sacrifice to the sun god -- but no adequate substitute has yet been found for the rites for the rain god and war god. However, the next festival dedicated to either of them is not near, so our heroes won't have to deal with the issue directly.

Still, it hangs over their audience with Emperor Achcuatli. and with the night of pleasure that is Moirin's bargain to blot out the dishonor the Aragonians' foul speculations placed upon him. He recognizes her unease and speaks directly of it, explaining how his people honor both life and death, and believe that blood is necessary to feed the gods. Moirin cautions him about the danger of excessive certainty about the will of one's gods, speaking as a member of a people who lost a great gift because they failed to understand their god's will for them, and as one who has seen people try to put words in the mouths of their gods for their own benefit.

The next day, he grants the d'Angelines passage and gives them two pochetecas (traders) who are familiar with the mysterious southern empire of Tawantinsuyo. One is a middle-aged man, clearly resentful of having been chosen, but the other is an elderly man with an earthy sense of humor.

I'm somewhat uncomfortable with the characterization of the elderly Eyahue as constantly chasing after women. On one hand, showing him as having a sex drive is an improvement over the tendency to treat the elderly as if they were neuters. On the other hand, it becomes a caricature in its own way, to show any older man who isn't portrayed clearly as a grandfather figure as a lecher who's constantly chasing pretty women of any age. It seems to have started in some comedic anime and manga (for instance, Happusai in Ranma 1/2, who's to the point of being sexually addicted), perhaps as a reaction to the strong Confucian tradition of honor to one's elders that appears throughout that part of the world. However, as it moves out of humorous literature and begins to appear in dramatic literature, it starts to feel more like a stereotype, and quite possibly as offensive in its own way as the older stereotype of elder as void of sexual desire.

Still, Eyahue is portrayed as having sufficient other strong positive characteristics that he doesn't completely degenerate into a one-dimensional dirty old man. Our company of adventurers have no more than crossed the border into the country of the mysterious Cloud People when he proves his worth in the face of his own nephew's betrayal. I quite honestly think that a lot of business executives here in the Primary World could take a lesson from Eyahue's words about how trade is built on trust.

As the company forges deeper and deeper in the jungles, they encounter one danger after another. There are swift rivers with treacherous rapids, and dangerous serpents and other animals. And then there are the dangers that pass unseen, such as the microorganism that cuts one after another of their number down with disease. Just as they're sure that they're all about to die and Prince Theirry will remain forever lost, Eyahue announces they're near the location of a tree known as the cinchona, the bark of which can be used to cure this illness. But as he and Moirin search for it, they are found by local hunters.

Moirin is able to defuse the initial hostility, and they end up befriending the forest people, whose shaman already has an adequate supply of cinchona bark to cure all the ailing members of their party. However, the chieftan tries to dissuade them from continuing any further, warning of a terrible black river of devouring evil. At first it seems to be pure superstition, but as they press onward in spite of the warning, they discover that it's no old wives' tale, but a mass of army ants that have been somehow bent to patrolling around the city of Vilcabamba, northernmost outpost of the empire of Tawantinsuyo.

Back in Naamah's Kiss, the fallen spirit Caim offered to teach the Circle of Shalamon the languages of the animals, beginning with that of ants. It was a gift intended to be a torment, for ants communicate through pheremones, but it turns out that Raphael has been able to gain sufficient mastery over his body chemistry to produce scent trails that can control this particular species of ant, luring whole colonies of them out of the jungles that are their natural habitat.

Or is it really Raphael who's in charge here, or that bit of Focalor, that Grand Duke of the Fallen whom they sought to summon but could not control, whom Master Lo Feng had to banish, thanks to Moirin's carefully-worded letter to Queen Jehanne? Even as Raphael slays Denis de Toulard lest the fellow member of the ill-fated Circle use that same knowledge of the language of ants against him, he cries out in grief as if arguing with another, invisible entity.

In any case, Raphael is putting together a rebellion against the Sapa Inca, the emperor of this vast empire. The plan is to take the Temple of the Ancestors in the palace of Qusqu and bend the great power there to his own ends, which will enable him to return to Terre d'Ange in force and take what he regards as rightfully his. He speaks of using his magic to set to rights all the peoples of Terra Nova, to bring what he calls real civilization, but all the time I'm reading it, I'm thinking of the scene in J.R.R. Tolkien's The Fellowship of the Ring when Frodo offers Lady Galadriel the One Ring, telling her she should take it and use its power to set the world to rights. At least she had the strength of will and character to not only recognize how it would end ("All would love me and despair"), but also to turn away from that future and accept the limits of her own power.

All seems to be hopeless, with all the men prisoners at hard labor and Moirin a captive within the palace, her only companions the Maidens of the Sun. But it turns out that these holy women have their own traditions of magic, quiet and inconspicuous, yet with a power that may just be able to turn the tide. But it will take sacrifices far greater than any of them dared imagine.

Furthermore, Ms. Carey does not shy away from depicting the consequences of that victory. Disrupting the ecology of the army ants has consequences that are very nearly visited upon the people of Qusqu in the form of horrific starvation. Even the Empire's remarkable system of storehouses and food distribution can go only so far to feed an entire city after every speck of food, even the potatoes in the ground, have been devoured by the vast swarms on their way back to their jungle home. It's only Moirin's willingness to use her magical talents with plants that keeps actual starvation at bay, although it's close rations for everyone.

And then there's the problem of getting Prince Thierry back home so he can be set upon the throne as the rightful king of Terre d'Ange. I'm happy to see that this novel actually ends, rather than simply closing with a set-up for another novel. Not to say that the author has closed off the possibility of future novels set in this wonderful and fascinating world, since there are still a few uncharted lands to be visited. We haven't done more than glimpse Japan, and we've seen nothing at all of Australia or New Zealand. But at this point, all we can do is wait and hope.

Review posted October 30, 2011

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