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Naamah's Curse by Jacqueline Carey

Cover art by Alan Ayers

Published by Grand Central Publishing

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

At the end of Naamah's Kiss, Moirin had triumphed over a Ch'in nobleman's rebellion, but at a terrible cost. Bao, her fellow student and sometime lover, had been struck down by a poison dart. Using a part of Moirin's diadh-anam, her soul, their teacher Master Lo Feng had restored Bao to life, but at the cost of his own. He had regarded it as a fair trade because he was approaching the end of his own life but Bao was just beginning his own journey and deserved to have another chance at it.

However, Bao's response to awakening and discovering that he now had half of Moirin's soul was to flee in the direction of the Tatar lands.While the rejection stung as painfully as a slap, Moirin would not give up on this young man who had come to mean so much to her, this former prince of thugs who had left it all behind to become a student of a mystic. Although the Princess Snow Tiger whom they had rescued from possession by a dragon would offer Moirin a whole retinue of troops and servants to accompany her into the Tatar lands, Moirin had politely refused. No, coming in force would only drive Bao further away, and would provoke the hostility of the very people who would be most likely to be able to tell her which way he had gone.

Instead, she wanted only equipment and horses. She would enter the Tatar lands alone. She was, after all, of the folk of the Maghuin Dhonn, accustomed to living in the wild after a childhood spent in a cave. She didn't even set foot in a house built by hands until she was a young woman and met her first love, a young scholar so tragically doomed by his need to prove himself to her by participating in a cattle-raid. So she's quite confident of her own ability to to handle the steppe upon which the Tatars live.

Except that sort of open country is quite different from the temperate boreal forest to which Moirin was familiar. For one thing, a continental climate has far more marked extremes than the maritime climate of an island like Alba, and she's walking straight into the teeth of winter.

But Moirin is one of those characters who's always able to land on her feet, rather like a cat. She encounters a Tatar winter encampment and is able to win their trust, to the point that they practically adopt her. No stranger to hard work, she pitches in with the chores and her deft hand with a bow and arrow makes her even more welcome. As spring approaches, she becomes eager to seek out Bao's Tatar father, but her hosts persuade her to remain with the warning that her sudden departure could bring misfortune upon their herds. Not wanting to repay their hospitality thusly, she agrees to remain with them until the annual gathering of the tribes.

At that time, she gets an unpleasant surprise -- Bao has wedded the daughter of the Great Khan himself. Bao explains that he didn't have much choice -- when he found his father, the Tatar general was so delighted that he immediately presented Bao to the Great Khan, who then offered his own daughter in marriage to his prized general's newly-discovered son. One simply does not refuse the gifts of the Great Khan.

At the same time, Bao finds that he is still drawn to Moirin. However, he cannot simply divorce his wife, and she is not apt to accept a second wife in Bao's household. Their only hope of leaving safely is to win an archery contest that will enable them to ask a boon of the Great Khan. Given Moirin's skill with bow and arrow, it seems a doable thing.

However, she fails to think of the possibility of treachery. When she is summoned to the Great Khan's ger, she takes no precautions, sure that she is protected by the Tatars' iron laws of hospitality. Instead she's put into chains and handed over to a Vralian delegation who haul her off across the steppe to a place known as Riva (from the map and some textual evidence, it appears to be on the shores of Lake Baikal).

Thus begins an interlude of grim servitude. The Yeshuites in Vralia have undergone a schism, with a splinter group believing that the majority has gone very wrong, preventing the promised return of Yeshua. Patriarch Pyotr Rostov leads that grim splinter sect, and he has determined that if he can redeem Moirin, he will set the Yeshuites back on the proper course and bring about the promised return of their redeemer.

In order to do that, he must first thoroughly break her of the sin he regards her as being emmeshed in. This involves both her learning the Word and her making a full confession of all her sins directly to the Patriarch himself. As it develops, the Patriarch is particularly, even perversely, interested in particular sins -- sexual ones and those involving dealings with supernatural entities. Every act of love she partook of is now cast in the worst possible light, and she increasingly feels like she's betraying everyone who's ever been kind to her. But the threat of stoning hangs over her if she does not at least pretend to be giving him what he wants to hear.

Until she convinces him of her tractability that she's permitted to observe the divine liturgy, and in doing so she sees a vision so horrific she cries out, heedless that she's breaking decorum. For that she gets a brutal penance that seems to drag on endlessly, to the point she has to struggle against breaking down for real, rather than simply pretending, giving him what he wants to hear.

But she's got one small thread of hope -- the half-D'Angeline youth Aleksei is beginning to respond to her seduction. It's been a slow and careful process, because he has been so completely conditioned to think of anything sensual as being wicked, but the combination of demureness and sympathetic listening has worn away at his resolve to the point that he becomes willing to question all he has been taught to believe.

And then comes the day when the Patriarch decides that Moirin has indeed experienced a conversion of the heart, and it is time for her to be baptized into the Yeshuite faith. Certain that her liberation is at hand, Moirin approaches the day with some happiness -- until the Patriarch demands that she should take an oath to Yeshua in the formula sacred to her people -- an oath to which she would be foresworn in the very act of taking it, involving as it does allegiance to two mutually contradictory deities. She curses herself for having once been so foolish as to reveal that sacred oath in a desperate bid to show her own sincerity.

But just when it appears everything's lost, she sees an opportunity to escape and seizes it with both hands. After putting an arrow through the Patriarch, she flees with Aleksei to a distant town where she disposes of the hateful silver chains, insisting on seeing them actually being melted down so she can be sure that they will never be used to imprison anyone else against their will. As Aleksei goes off on his own quest to learn more about mainstream Yeshuite teachings in hopes of reconciling the splinter sect in which he was raised with the teachings of forgiveness and gentle grace that Yeshua propounded, Moirin resumes her search for Bao.

It's a very tense encounter with the Tatar Great Khan's daughter, but in it Moirin discovers that Bao was deceived so that he went chasing after her in the opposite direction. He had been told that she had been summoned by the Falconer, a shadowy figure that rules a distant land with his equally mysterious consort the Spider Queen. At first they sound more mythical than real, and Moirin despairs of ever finding Bao. But as she asks more questions, she learns that yes, they are real people living somewhere in the vast mountain range known as the Abode of the Gods (what we call the Himalayas). And although they have a reputation for getting what they want in spite of whatever opposition may be placed in their way, thanks to their corps of ruthless and amoral assassins, at least one woman has successfully resisted them.

On the other hand, actually getting to this mysterious land may be easier said than done. Although Moirin has traveled successfully through some very dangerous lands, including the steppe where the Tatars dwell, a major mountain range poses far more difficult and deadly challenges. Not only is she unfamiliar with the particular perils of the passes that will lead her to the hidden valley where her potential ally dwells, but she also lacks knowledge of how to deal with altitude sickness.

When she finally arrives in the land of the woman known as the Queen of the Rats, the Rani Amrita, she finds herself facing not only the problem of convincing these people to take action instead of maintaining a defensive position, but also has to deal with the intricacies of the Hindu caste system. And the injustices of the caste system's treatment of those who are regarded as outside of it and thus without status is at the heart of the problem she must face in order to rescue Bao from the Falconer and the Spider Queen. It would be simple if the Spider Queen were simply a nasty, malicious person who is mean to people because it's so much fun to be cruel, but as it turns out, this woman is deeply psychologically scarred and is lashing out in her bitterness. Destroying her will not destroy the system that produced her festering resentment, and it's likely that another will soon arise who also feels that their legitimate grievance against the system gives them the right to lash out at all and sundry without regard to individual guilt and innocence.

I would like to believe that the social reforms that are part of the closing of this volume of Moirin's story will last and spread. Unfortunately, I also am far too aware of how reforms from the top often don't last longer than a generation or two. If there's not commitment at all levels of society to make the changes permanent, they soon are eroded as people find reasons to push the oppressed back into their position on the bottom of the social ladder.

On the other hand, we'll probably never learn what happens with them in the long run, because it's clear that Moirin's story will be taking her elsewhere in the final volume of this trilogy, Naamah's Blessing. And that's the one thing that really bothers me about this novel. Like Naamah's Kiss, it ends with a clear and unabashed lead-in to the next novel. The various volumes of the two Kushiel trilogies each ended in a way that felt like a genuine conclusion, so that you felt like you had a complete story in the end. Yes, the character's life would go on, and quite possibly there would be more adventures for him or her, but the matters of this particular story had been properly dealt with and the character was at rest, at least for the moment. This novel doesn't even feel like a complete novel in itself, but instead reads more like a bridge to the third novel, in which all will finally be resolved.

Or at least we can hope. I'm already wondering if it too will end with a cliffhanger leading us to another trilogy of novels, whether about Moirin or about some new character. I really wish that both author and publisher could feel confident that the strength of the writing and storytelling will be sufficiently compelling to leave readers hungry for more stories of this fascinating world, without having to leave them dangling on an unconcluded story-thread.

Review posted July 21, 2011

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