In my humble opinion, Jacqueline Carey's first Kushiel trilogy was one of the most awesome speculative fiction series of all time. Hence, Kushiel's Scion, the first volume in the second trilogy, had very big shoes to fill. Which, in retrospect, was probably unfair as far as expectations go. Kushiel's Avatar, which garnered a perfect score here on the Hotlist, was the culmination of a panoply of convoluted plotlines that had been built over the course of three memorable installments. With that novel being such a grand slam, it raised the bar quite high and created lofty expectations that could not possibly be met by whatever would come next. In the end, though it was a great read in its own right, Kushiel's Scion was a transition book bridging the gap between the two Kushiel series and an introduction setting the stage for what would take place in the two subsequent volumes.
But with Kushiel's Justice, Carey truly knocked it out of the park. With most of the groundwork laid out within the pages of its predecessor, the set-up phase is almost non-existent and the author immediately takes us on a number of unforgettable journeys that will change Imriel forever.
Here's the blurb:
From Jacqueline Carey, New York Times bestselling author of Kushiel's Scion, comes the second adventure in the Imriel trilogy. Imriel de la Courcel's blood parents are history's most reviled traitors, while his adoptive parents, Phèdre and Joscelin, are Terre d'Ange's greatest champions. Stolen, tortured, and enslaved as a young boy, Imriel is now a Prince of the Blood, third in line for the throne in a land that revels in beauty, art, and desire. After a year abroad to study at university, Imriel returns from his adventures a little older and somewhat wiser. But perhaps not wise enough. What was once a mere spark of interest between himself and his cousin Sidonie now ignites into a white-hot blaze. But from commoner to peer, the whole realm would recoil from any alliance between Sidonie, heir to the throne, and Imriel, who bears the stigma of his mother's misdeeds and betrayals. Praying that their passion will peak and fade, Imriel and Sidonie embark on an intense, secret affair. Blessed Elua founded Terre d'Ange and bestowed one simple precept to guide his people: Love as thou wilt. When duty calls, Imriel honors his role as a member of the royal family by leaving to marry a lovely, if merely sweet, Alban princess. By choosing duty over love, Imriel and Sidonie may have unwittingly trespassed against Elua's law. But when dark powers in Alba, who fear an invasion by Terre d'Ange, seek to use the lovers' passion to bind Imriel, the gods themselves take notice. Before the end, Kushiel's justice will be felt in heaven and on earth.
As is usually her wont, Jacqueline Carey's worldbuilding was absolutely amazing. For the backdrop of her fantasy universe, she eschewed the traditional European medieval environment and created something that is more akin to the Renaissance era and which is set in an alternate version of Western Europe. And although Kushiel's Scion turned out to be another textured and sophisticated novel that basically delivered on all fronts, the book was not as dense and sprawling as its predecessors and the action was limited to Terre d'Ange (France) and Tiberium (Rome) and its surroundings. With Kushiel's Justice, I was hoping that Carey would take us on additional fabulous journeys that would enable us to discover more about her universe and I wasn't disappointed. Beyond Terre d'Ange, other countries such as England, Scotland, the Netherlands, Germany, and Russia are explored and play a big role as Imriel's tale moves forward. Richly detailed and imagined in terms of cultures, traditions, religions, folklore, and politics, Carey has imbued every place with magic and a life of its own. I was particularly happy to finally discover where the Yeshuite pilgrims have been journeying all these years to create a new kingdom in the frozen north. As always, the web of murder and political intrigue woven by the author is as impressive and unanticipated as the politicking of such masters as George R. R. Martin and Katherine Kurtz. Believe you me: Kushiel's Justice is almost impossible to put down!
Terre d'Ange was founded by Elua and his Companions, all of them fallen angels. Elua's motto was "Love as thou wilt." Which means that love and physical pleasure are important facets of D'Angeline society. As a matter of course, sexuality once again lies at the heart of this story, and service to the angel Naamah continues to be one of the most important religious institutions of Terre d'Ange. Imriel is a child of Elua, but he is also a child of Kushiel, whose justice can be as brutal as it is uncompromising. And as ancient powers seek to bind Imriel against his will, both Elua and Kushiel will take notice.
Jacqueline Carey continues to write with an elegance that reminds me of Guy Gavriel Kay at his best. Her lyrical prose is something special and I have a feeling that it could well be the very best in the genre today. Even the darkest and more shocking scenes are written with a distinctive literary grace that makes them even more powerful than they would be in the hands of a less gifted author. Once more in Kushiel's Justice, her spellbinding prose creates an imagery filled with wonder and beauty that never fails to fascinate. Like Robin Hobb, Carey also possesses a subtle human touch which imbues some scenes with even more emotional impact. And God knows there are more than a few of those! And damn her, again à la Hobb, Carey makes her characters suffer like no other genre authors. Given the dark and disturbing events that Imriel was forced to live through in Kushiel's Avatar and Kushiel's Scion, you would think that the poor guy deserves a break. But no, far from it. Just when you thought that he had finally found a bit of happiness, he gets the rug pulled from under him. This book contains one of the most heartwrenching moments of the series thus far.
I have to admit that I still miss the first person narrative of Phèdre nó Delaunay. As a deeply flawed character, her strengths and weaknesses made her genuine and her perspective, that of an older woman relating the tale of her past, misled readers on several occasions by playing with their expectations. I liked how Phèdre's strenghts often became her weaknesses and vice versa. But Imriel is deeply flawed himself and his point of view, though it took some getting used to in the first volume, now works nearly as well as that of his foster mother. Jacqueline Carey has a knack for creating engaging and memorable secondary characters, and once again the cast is amazing. Indeed, beyond the presence of Phèdre, Joscelin, and their entourage, this one would never have been such a satisfying read without the presence of such characters as Sidonie, Alais, Dorelei, Urist, and many more. The reunion with Hyacinthe and Sibeal was short but touching, and I have a feeling that Phèdre and Joscelin's quest will have repercussions in the final installment. As was the case with every Kushiel book to date, à la Mark Lawrence, Robin Hobb, and L. E. Modessit, jr., Carey refuses to follow the path of least resistance and her characters remain true to themselves till the very end. For good or ill.
In terms of rhythm, this one was paced much better than its predecessor. Kushiel's Justice is another doorstopper of a book, yet for the most part it's a real page-turner. The author has a knack for coming up with plot twists that suck you in and won't let go. No doubt about it, this one makes for compulsive reading! Simply put, Kushiel's Justice is another sophisticated and convoluted read full of wonder and sensuality. Written on an epic scale and with an elegance seldom seen in this subgenre, Jacqueline Carey did it again. Kushiel's Justice is as complex and rewarding as any of the best works of fantasy out there.
These two series deserve the highest possible recommendation.