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Naamah's Kiss by Jacqueline Carey

Cover art by Alan Ayers

Published by Grand Central Publishing

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

When I finished reading Kushiel's Mercy, the final book of the second Kushiel trilogy, I was left wondering where else the author could take this marvelously realized universe. In particular, I was concerned that the protagonists' avowed decision to establish an academy for the study of magic would destroy the wonderful sense that magic in that universe was part of the numinous, beyond the control of mortal human beings, and would instead reduce it to just another alternate system of science and technology the way magic is in so many other fantasy universes.

Thus I was quite curious when I heard the news that she was beginning a new trilogy set in that universe. Would she be able to maintain the elements that had brought her readers to the original and second trilogies, while at the same time avoiding the perils of simply rehashing all the elements that people liked, without any fresh insight?

When I finally was able to obtain a copy, I was quite happy to see that yes, she has indeed succeeded in navigating between those twin perils to give us a story as rich and intricate as the originals. As the title indicates, this novel deals with the influence of a different one of the Blessed Elua's angelic Companions, and thus we move away from what is poetically called the "sharper pleasures" of dominance and submission which are the province of the stern Kushiel, formerly disciplinarian to the One God, who left his place at the brazen gates when he learned that chastisement can also be a form of love. However, this should not be taken to mean that the love of Naamah, lady of pleasure, is a weak or wimpy sort of love. Far from it, the calling to love which runs throughout the novels of this universe often proves a very demanding one, leading lovers to put their very lives on the line for one another.

Yet again, the author has decided to make a significant forward jump in time in the new trilogy. But while the second Kushiel trilogy jumped forward only a single generation and many of the major actors of the first remained on stage, this new trilogy jumps forward at least four generations, about a century. Everyone who was active in those days has now passed into historical memory, and we are dealing with an entirely new cast of characters.

Furthermore, the new novel begins very far from those bright centers of activity, to the point that they really aren't even a rumor. Moirin is born among the Maghuin Dhonn, the People of the Bear, who appear to be the earliest inhabitants of the land of Alba, even older than the Picti (this is a world in which the Anglo-Saxon invasions never occurred as the result of the power of the Lord of the Straits, and the British Isles remain entirely Celtic). These ancient people are not much for civilization and instead prefer to live in the wilds, practicing what few magics remain to them after the terrible betrayal that was the center of Kushiel's Justice. As such, Moirin spends the first years of her life in almost total isolation, living with her mother in a cave. Only slowly does she begin to interact with other people, and when she finds a young man who attracts her, their relationship soon comes to grief -- and she is blamed for the tragedy by his family.

But Moirin isn't going to get any time to brood over her loss, for in a rite of passage she discovers that the bear spirit of the Maghuin Donn has appointed that she travel to a distant land in order to fulfill some special destiny. She doesn't even know where or what, but she sets forth bravely to do it, funded by a special legacy left from the time of Imriel.

So now the story takes on a Country Rube in the Big City element. Moirin is skilled in woodcraft, but in the civilized society of Terre d'Ange she is quite out of her element. To be sure, she gets some introduction to civilization in the trip across the Straits and the journey by coach to the City of Elua, but she no sooner gets there than she's the victim of a cutpurse. A trained huntress, she thinks nothing of pursuing her assailant through the streets of the d'Angeline capital -- but she knows nothing of the other perils of a city, including heavy vehicular traffic.

The next thing she knows, she awakens in the townhouse of the man whose carriage struck and nearly killed her. He's Raphael de Mereliot, physician to the d'Angeline king, Moirin's distant cousin. As Moirin recovers and regains her strength, Raphael begins to introduce her to high society, giving her connections that speed the process far beyond what she could have attained by herself. She also makes some other interesting discoveries, including an elderly scholar from the distant land of Ch'in who begins to teach her the energy disciplines of his homeland.

However, Raphael also has some dark secrets -- he's also a member of a group who feels that the school founded by Imriel and Sidonie is too conservative in only studying, never attempting to actually practice magic. He's particularly fascinated by the innate abilities Moirin possesses as a member of the Maghuin Donn, and wonders whether they might be useful in his little cabal's investigations of some ancient writings which purport to tell how King Solomon was able to control various members of a race of fallen angels who left the Heaven of the One God not out of love as Elua's Companions did, but out of pettiness and spite. Right there is a definite warning of peril -- these are not entities of admirable motivation -- but Moirin feels herself beholden for all the things Raphael has done for her, and agrees in spite of the danger.

She can hold open the door between the realms of the Seen and the Unseen longer than anything Raphael and his friends have ever been able to accomplish by themselves -- but only at grave peril to herself. Only the breathing techniques Master Lo Feng has been teaching her enables her to avoid being completely drained by the effort -- and when each effort fails and Raphael's friends want to try another fallen angel, the exhaustion becomes steadily worse and she recovers less completely.

And here is where I'm seeing some huge warning signs -- why do they need to use trickery and coercion to treat with these entities? Maybe it's just my strong libertarian leanings, which regard fraud and force as major evils in relations between people, but as I'm reading this section I'm thinking that if you can't trust an entity to deal squarely with you, it might be a sign that having dealings with them isn't exactly the wisest thing to do.

But Raphael and his circle are not about to question the wisdom of their approach. Instead, they decide that their mistake must have been to attempt to summon minor fallen angels, mere tricksters who found the playing of pranks upon mortals to be amusing because it was the sole extent of their ability to exert force. Perhaps if they summon one of the greater princes of the fallen angels, they'll have someone who'll actually deal with them. Of course such an entity wields far greater power, and it will require far more extensive preparations to create the magical tools that will constrain him from doing them harm if he proves malicious.

By this time Moirin is having some serious reservations about the prudence of what they are doing, but she doesn't want to break her promise of secrecy. However, she realizes there's one small loophole -- she promised only to tell no one about what they were doing. Nothing was said about not writing to anyone. So she writes a very carefully worded, oblique message to the Queen, trusting that its recipient will prove perceptive enough to realize the terrible danger they are entering and raise the alarm.

And thus Moirin, the rustic who grew up in a cave and didn't set foot under the roof of a house until she was a young woman, proves wiser than these educated d'Angelines. A grand duke of the fallen angels is a far more subtle entity than any of them have suspected, and a far more terrible. But Moirin's message, oblique though it was, aroused sufficient concern that Queen Jehanne sent Master Lo Feng to wield his Eastern disciplines against the threat. Disciplines that prove sufficiently strong to enable Moirin to close the door she opened, however foolishly though well-meant, and prevent a far worse disaster.

But they've no more than overcome that incipient horror when news comes that a delegation from Ch'in has arrived, requesting that Master Lo Feng return immediately to his native land to deal with a terrible menace of magical nature. As soon as Moirin hears, she knows that here lies the destiny for which she was sent from her humble yet familiar home into a strange wide world she barely understands.

So off she goes into yet another part of the Great Wide World, to a society even more ancient and learned than Terre d'Ange which she had at first found so terribly daunting. A land that may soon be torn by civil war, if they cannot unravel the mystery of why the beautiful Princess Snow Tiger should have gone mad and literally torn her husband limb from limb on their wedding night. She speaks cryptically of possession, and by her own request her eyes have been bound so that what is within her will not strike again and kill further innocent people.

Except what constitutes an innocent person proves to be not so simple, as their quest to free Snow Tiger of the spirit reveals a near-unimaginable treachery by an ambitious nobleman. But even after he is defeated, the Emperor insists that the destabilizing military technology he developed must be destroyed, not just physically, but the very knowledge of how to build it wiped away -- which may well mean a bloodbath, since large numbers of craftsmen and soldiers were involved in the building and operation of these devices. Many of these people had no conception of the politics involved, no reason to believe that the orders they were following were other than lawful and proper, and their deaths will leave their even more innocent families destitute, possibly even stigmatized as the families of criminals and traitors.

However, that grim conclusion is averted, thanks to an ability of Moirin's that was hinted at way back in the beginning. I have heard some comments that it's surprising that the Emperor would be so quick to destroy something that would give Ch'in an advantage against the Tatar hordes that are supposed to be of such concern, an act of destruction that might actually prove of advantage to the Tatars. However, that's a very European reaction -- in a region fragmented among many contending powers, anything that might offer even a slight advantage over one's opponents must be grasped and developed to its utmost before the other side does so. Not so in China, of which Ch'in is clearly an alternate version -- the sheer size of land all under a single rule has created a sense of impregnability, not to mention a focus on stability as the first and foremost virtue to be preserved and protected at all costs. Of course the long-term effects of that strategy were to create stagnation that could be exploited by cultures that had grown up in a far more contentious environment, but for centuries it created a stable culture at what had been quite a high level of development.

I myself found more noteworthy the unabashed cliffhanger of the ending. In the Kushiel books, the door was always left open for further adventures, but each book concluded. Here we have the actual conclusion of the novel followed by a scene that is basically the setup for the next book, which makes me wonder if her publishers put some pressure on her to end the book with a strong hook for the next volume. I personally prefer my books to actually end, even if they leave a few minor threads dangling that could become the basis of future novels. However, it's certainly possible that the publishers, with their eyes firmly on the bottom line in an economy that was already beginning to grow shaky, wanted a little more assurance that readers would want to pick up the next volume.

Review posted February 20, 2011.

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