Naamah's Curse

Although it showed signs of greatness akin to those that made its predecessors such wonderful reads, I felt that Naamah's Kiss turned out to be Jacqueline Carey's weakest Kushiel-related work to date. Given the originality and the quality of the previous two trilogies, Naamah's Kiss and the next two installments had extremely big shoes to fill. Quite unfair as far as expectations go, no doubt about it, what with the great tapestry of complex storylines that has been woven over the course of the six unforgettable volumes that came before. Understandably, it raised the bar sky-high and created lofty expectations that could not possibly be met by whatever came next. Another difficulty was the fact that the world and its characters have moved on, and to all intents and purposes the author was forced to start from scratch.

The first volume was a two-part story. The first portion, the one focusing on Moirin's upbringing and her sojourn to Terre d'Ange when she came of age was as compelling as anything the Carey ever wrote. 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. Sadly, following a terrific start, the first installment in the Naamah series suddenly lost steam and suffered from a rushed ending that failed to live up to the potential shown by the book early on.

Weakest installment or not, Naamah's Kiss was still better than most fantasy offerings on the market today. I was thus looking forward to reading Naamah's Curse and discover where Carey would take us next. And I'm pleased to report that this second volume is a better balanced read.

Here's the blurb:

New York Times bestselling author Jacqueline Carey, praised for pushing the boundaries of epic fantasy, delivers the second installment of the Naamah series, set in the vivid alternative Renaissance world of her famed Kushiel's Legacy novels.

Alone and far from the land of her birth, young Moirin sets out across wild Tatar territory to find her beloved Bao, the proud Ch'in stick fighter who holds the missing half of her diadhanam, the divine soul-spark of her mother's people. But the lovers' reunion is short lived. Moirin is abducted, cast in chains that bind her magic, and betrayed into the hands of a fanatic Yeshuite priest. Fiercely zealous, he is determined to save Moirin's soul and convert her to his faith...or see her stoned to death for her many sins. With her soul declared a battleground of the gods, Moirin will struggle to hold on to her humanity and survive - all the while wondering if the gift of love bestowed on her by the goddess Naamah is a blessing or a curse.

Wrestling with issues of faith and divine will, Naamah's Curse explores what happens when mortal men seek to mold the gods in their own images.

As is usually her wont, Jacqueline Carey's worldbuilding is amazing. Eschewing the traditional European medieval environment, Carey's creation is a Renaissance era analog and it is set in an alternate version of Western Europe. Previous works took us on fabulous journeys that enabled readers to discover more about her universe and she never disappointed. Richly detailed and imagined in terms of cultures, religions, and politics, like all its predecessors Naamah's Kiss was another textured and sophisticated novel that took us to alternate versions of Britain, France, and China. This second installment takes Moirin across central Asia, from China, to Mongolia, Russia, India, and Nepal. Naamah's Curse is another vast and captivating travelogue which introduced us to yet more corners of Carey's universe.

Like many other readers, I 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 particularly enjoyed how Phèdre's strenghts often became her weaknesses and vice versa. 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. Surprisingly, 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 mirrored 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. And that resolve gets sorely tested in this second volume. During her search for Bao, she often finds herself alone and forced to rely on no one but herself. I feel that her harrowing experiences during the search for her beloved and subsequent captivity and flight finally made her come together as a main protagonist. So much so that I now stopped comparing her to Phèdre and Imriel, as if Moirin's voice and perspective have finally taken their rightful place in the driver's seat.

Carey always had a knack for creating endearing and memorable secondary characters, and once more she came up with a great cast for Naamah's Curse. In the early chapters, there are some poignant scenes featuring Bao's mother and sister, as well as Batu's family while Moirin journeys across the Tatar Territory. Then it's the people associated with her ordeal as a prisoner in Vralia, especially Patriarch Pyotr Rostov, poor Valentina, and her bastard son Aleksei. Finally, it's the Rani of Bhaktipur and her clever son. And of course Bao, who carries half on Moirin's soul in his heart.

One of the main themes explored by this novel has to do with the ways men can twist their gods and dogma in order to achieve their own ends. Whether it's the Khan of the Tatars, the Yesuite Patriarch, the Falconer, or the Spider Queen, they all preach a perverted devotion meant to serve their own needs and thirst for power.

The author continues to write with elegance. Her lyrical prose is something special and I feel 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 Curse, her spellbinding prose creates an imagery filled with wonder and beauty. And other than Robin Hobb, no one makes her characters suffer as much over the course of a book/series. And as was the case with Phèdre and Imriel, it's obvious that Moirin's life will get a lot worse before it gets better.

There was 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 offered herself for the sheer joy of the act. Her sexual nature and desire to please landed Moirin into a number of contradictory and detrimental relationships that put her into weird and occasionally dangerous situations. But these, as much as the other challenges she faced, would shape her and help her grow into the woman she is meant to become. It continues in the same vein in this sequel, though there is less sex involved. Indeed, Naamah's Curse is likely the less sexual Kushiel novel thus far.

Unlike its predecessor, this book doesn't suffer from any pacing issues. The rhythm flows well throughout, even if some portions move faster than others. As I mentioned, this second installment is more balanced and it makes for a better reading experience.

Naamah's Curse is another convoluted read full of wonder and sensuality. I can't wait to find out what Jacqueline Carey has in store for us in Naamah's Blessing.

The final verdict: 8.25/10

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