Naamah's Kiss

Although I was late for this party, you probably know by now that I totally fell in love with Jacqueline Carey's Kushiel books. After knocking it out of the park with the previous two trilogies, Naamah's Kiss and its two sequels had extremely big shoes to fill. Which is more than a little unfair as far as expectations go, what with the great tapestry of complex storylines that has been woven over the course of six unforgettable volumes. Naturally, it raised the bar sky-high and created lofty expectations that could not possibly be met by whatever came next. Another difficulty is the fact that the world and its characters have moved on. With this new tale occurring a few generations in the future, to a certain extent the author was forced to start from scratch.

And though it shows signs of greatness akin to those that made its predecessors such wonderful reads, Naamah's Kiss turned out to be Carey's weakest Kushiel-related work to date. Indeed, the novel is a two-part story. The first portion, the one focusing on Moirin's upbringing and her sojourn to Terre d'Ange when she comes of age is as compelling as anything the author ever wrote. I was hooked from the first page and captivated by the plot, devouring chapter after chapter, impatient to find out what happened next. The second part, the one focusing on Moirin's sea voyage to Ch'in and her quest to save the throne, felt decidedly discordant and inconsistent. Hence, following a terrific start, the first installment in the Naamah series suddenly loses steam and suffers from a rushed ending that fails to live up to the potential shown by the book early on.

Here's the blurb:

Once there were great magicians born to the Maghuin Dhonn, the folk of the Brown Bear, the oldest tribe in Alba. But generations ago, the greatest of them all broke a sacred oath sworn in the name of all his people. Now only small gifts remain to them. Through her lineage, Moirin possesses such gifts—the ability to summon the twilight and conceal herself, and the skill to coax plants to grow.

Moirin has a secret, too. From childhood onward, she senses the presence of unfamiliar gods in her life—the bright lady and the man with a seedling cupped in his palm. Raised in the wilderness by her reclusive mother, Moirin learns only when she comes of age how illustrious, if mixed, her heritage is. The great-granddaughter of Alais the Wise, child of the Maghuin Donn and a cousin of the Cruarch of Alba, Moirin learns her father was a D'Angeline priest dedicated to serving Naamah, goddess of desire.

After Moirin undergoes the rites of adulthood, she finds divine acceptance... on the condition that she fulfill an unknown destiny that lies somewhere beyond the ocean. Or perhaps oceans. Beyond Terre d'Ange, where she finds her father, in the far reaches of distant Ch'in, Moirin's skills will be a true gift when facing the vengeful plans of an ambitious mage, a noble warrior-princess desperate to save her father's throne, and the spirit of a celestial dragon.

I've said many times that Jacqueline Carey's worldbuilding has always been amazing. Eschewing the traditional European medieval environment, Carey's creation is Renaissance era analog and it is set in an alternate version of Western Europe. And with the discovery of the New World and its exploration, this opens the door for countless possibilities. In the past, with each new book she took us on fabulous journeys that enabled readers to discover more about her universe and she never disappointed in doing so. Richly detailed and imagined in terms of cultures, religions, and politics, like all its predecessors Naamah's Kiss is another textured and sophisticated novel. Especially in the first part, as a young Moirin grows up and experiences the magic of the Maghuin Dhonn and little by little discovers her mysterious heritage. A little less so in the second portion, however, as Carey's portrayal of her alternate China would have benefited from more depth. Contrary to what is habitually the author's wont, there was no complicated web of murder and political intrigue woven through the plotlines. At her best, Carey's politicking can rival that of such masters as George R. R. Martin and Katherine Kurtz and I was a bit disappointed that things were more straightforward in this one.

Throughout the second series, I sort of missed 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 particularly enjoyed how Phèdre's strenghts often became her weaknesses and vice versa. But Imriel was deeply flawed himself and his point of view, though it took some getting used to, ultimately worked nearly as well as that of his foster mother. Oddly enough, Moirin's perspective didn't take any time to get used to. To a certain extent, Moirin's education and her introduction at the court of Terre d'Ange mirrors that of Phèdre in Kushiel's Dart. Having spent her childhood in isolation in the wilderness, there is an innocence and vulnerability to Moirin, but also a definite strength that Phèdre did not possess as a young woman. Her point of view is also very refreshing, especially her distinctly critical view of D'Angeline society and how frivolous it can be.

Jacqueline Carey always had a knack for creating engaging and memorable secondary characters, and once again she came up with a great cast for Naamah's Kiss. Early on, it's her protective mother Fainche and Cillian, Moirin's first love. In Terre d'Ange, it's Raphael and Queen Jehanne. And then, it's brash Bao, wise Master Lo Feng, and cursed Snow Tiger. Her relationships with these men and women will help shape the person Moirin will become. They will also have important repercussions in what is to come in the next two volumes.

As always, the author writes 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. As I mentioned before, 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 again in Naamah's Kiss, her gripping prose creates an imagery filled with wonder and beauty that never fails to fascinate. Even if the Ch'in portion of the book is not quite up to par with what came before. Like Robin Hobb, Carey also possesses a subtle human touch which imbues certain scenes with even more emotional impact. And other than Hobb, no one makes her characters suffer as much over the course of a book/series. And it looks as though Moirin's life will get a lot worse before it gets better.

Given the fact that this is another Kushiel installment, there is plenty of sex featured in Naamah's Kiss. But unlike the first two trilogies, in which sexual relationships were more about dominance and/or submission, as a scion of Naamah young Moirin offers herself for the sheer joy of the act. Her sexual nature and desire to please land Moirin into a number of contradictory and detrimental relationships that will put her into weird and occasionally dangerous situations. But these, as much as the other challenges she will face, will shape her and help her grow into the woman she is meant to become. In any event, if you've made it to this third series, I doubt that sex will put you off at this point.

As far as the rhythm is concerned, the pace is never an issue until the Ch'in voyage and the subsequent quest to save the warrior-princess and her kingdom. As a first installment meant to introduce the protagonists and their plights and lay the groundwork for what is to come, Naamah's Kiss is by no means a fast-paced affair. Jacqueline Carey sure knows how to come up with plot twists that suck you in and won't let go and I was enthralled from the get-go. The Terre d'Ange portion more or less parallels Phèdre's own story and is quite interesting. To be honest, even though the sea voyage more or less brought the tale to a standstill for a while, up until they reached Ch'in I was thoroughly engrossed by this book. Why the quest that followed, its resolution, and its aftermath were rushed in such a way, I have no idea. But it did rob Naamah's Kiss of the sort of engame and ending I felt it deserved.

And even though the novel did not turn out to be as good as its predecessors, Naamah's Kiss is yet another sophisticated and convoluted read full of wonder and sensuality, one written on an epic scale and with an elegance seldom seen in this subgenre. And as I mentioned in my review of Kushiel's Mercy, weakest installment or not, this one is still better than most fantasy offerings on the market today. And fans agree that the next volume is a return to form for Carey and perhaps one of the best books in the sequence, so I'm definitely looking forward to reading Naamah's Curse.

The final verdict: 7.75/10

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