Review of Kushiel's Scion by Jacqueline Carey
by Jacqueline Carey
So you wrote a highly-successful trilogy. Congratulations! What now? Well, you could write a sequel trilogy: new narrator, same old world and intrigue. Some writers want to milk the cash cow for all it's worth. Other writers, like Jacqueline Carey, create worlds compelling enough to justify returning to them time and again. Sinking into Kushiel's Scion is like having an old friend come to visit: all the things that you remember are there, but time has passed, and with it has come change. So you get to know each other again, laugh over old jokes, and share new ones.
Imriel is really the only logical choice for narrator of this trilogy. He belongs to the next generation, and although he is third-in-line to the throne of Terre d'Ange, he is first-in-line to inherit the political turmoil set in motion by his exiled mother, Melisande. It's fitting from a dramatic perspective as well, for Imriel is Phèdre's adopted son, a successor of sorts for her. The son of the antagonist of the previous trilogy is the protagonist of the new trilogy, and his first order of business is related to exactly that issue: who the hell is Imriel de la Courcel, and is he good?
I kept on waiting for something to happen in this book. At each turn I expected someone—Imriel—to get kidnapped or beaten or framed for a crime. That last one sort of happens, and it is a minor if important event. I was looking for something big, something that would incite action and drive the rest of the plot, much like Imriel's kidnapping drives the plot of Kushiel's Avatar. That kind of plot bomb is absent from Kushiel's Scion. Most of the book covers the span of years prior to Imriel's coming-of-age, at which point he leaves for the university at Tiberium. Then, in the second movement, if you will, we get some action that influences Imriel's outlook, prompting him to return to the City of Elua for the book's recapitulation.
Now I realize I was doing what many other reviewers have done, which is compare Kushiel's Scion to Kushiel's Avatar. I think it's natural to want to compare two consecutive books in a series, and from the perspective of writing quality it's a valid comparison to make. Nevertheless, Kushiel's Avatar is the concluding volume in a trilogy, and as such its plot is constructed differently from Kushiel's Scion, which is the beginning of a trilogy. It's far more apt to compare this book with that other beginning, Kushiel's Dart. Indeed, then we see the similarities emerge.
As Kushiel's Dart does with Phèdre, this book quickly covers a number of years during Imriel's youth. Imriel is of noble birth, but both our narrators are outsiders to nobility, for he was raised as an orphan and a goatherd. Moreover, both of them have psychic burdens they will bear for the rest of their lives: Phèdre, of course, is Kushiel's chosen; Imriel has Daršanga, as well as the shadow of his mother's betrayal hanging over his deeds. Kushiel's Dart is Phèdre's coming-of-age novel, the story of how she comes to terms with who she is and ends up embracing a life into which she has been manipulated by Anafiel and Melisande. Likewise, Kushiel's Scion is Imriel's story of growing up. He is part of the Courcel family yet not a part, part of the Shahrizai family yet not a part. Restless from this sense of not belonging, he eventually strikes off beyond Terre d'Ange to seek some sense of direction. It's not adversity that Imriel needs; it's reassurance that he can be good, that he is not a slave to fate.
As far as the change in narrators goes, I think they're really interchangeable. Phèdre was a great narrator, and so is Imriel, because they're both Carey narrating with a single voice, one which uses a somewhat archaic, stilted vocabulary and syntax. I don't mean to say that they are the same person, and if you replaced Imriel with Phèdre, you'd definitely have a very different story. Yet the style of narration remains the same, which is both reassuring and a little disappointing.
Also much the same are the politics. I love the politics in this series. Carey achieves the proper balance between national interests, like the Alban succession issue, and the conspiracies among families and houses, like Bernadette de Trevalion's plot to murder Imriel. One of the reasons I find historical fiction so fascinating is its ability to portray that dynamic between the massive national conflicts and the smaller, personal conflicts that drive individuals. Epic fantasy can accomplish the same thing, and Carey is an excellent example of this. Ysandre may trust Imriel, love Imriel as her cousing; but as the queen, she has certain obligations. Obtaining justice is not as simple as accusing the guilty party and presenting evidence, not when such accusations might breed more distrust and discontent. As he matures, Imriel recognizes that this is part of being nobility. Instead of choosing to reveal Bernadette's plot, he blackmails her into secrecy in an attempt to prevent future blood feuds.
If anything, I wish there had been more politics. Most of the intrigue centres around the Unseen Guild, a secret society that manipulates events in Europa for its own purposes. This is the society that taught Anafiel Delaunay the ways of espionage. Imriel encounters the Guild in Tiberium, personified as Claudia Fulvia, wife of a Roman senator. They are just as interested in him as he is in them: having a Crown Prince of Terre d'Ange, someone who is third-in-line to the throne, in their organization would be incredibly beneficial. Imriel stumbles upon the Unseen Guild while trying to discover who taught Anafiel. Soon, however, he becomes obsessed with learning more about the Guild and their relationship to his exiled mother.
Honestly, the problem with having the Guild as adversaries (I'm deliberately avoiding the less neutral term of "antagonist") is that they're so damn shadowy. Aside from Claudia, and perhaps Canis, we don't knowingly meet any other Guild members. As a rule, I am suspicious about enemies who operate behind the scenes—they smack of plot device. To Carey's credit, the Guild is not the one that rides to Imriel's rescue when Lucca comes under siege. Still, they are far from a compelling addition to the canon.
As the first book in a trilogy, Kushiel's Scion captures the introductory flavour of Kushiel's Dart. Unfortunately, it lacks a big central conflict. Even the latter book has one in the form of the Skaldian invasion. The siege of Lucca is a major turning point in Imriel's life, but it lacks the gravity of previous events in the Kushiel series, where every book, including the first one, left Europa altered in some fundamental way. So in that sense, Carey did not meet the standards she set in her previous trilogy. But I'm not saying it's bad, and I'd venture that it's something more than good. In terms of characterization, which is a parameter I rank highly (often even higher than plot), this is a great book. For those who have read the first trilogy and are aching to return to Terre d'Ange, I don't think you'll be disappointed. I know, I miss Phèdre too. But every generation must eventually cede new adventures to the next one, and it's Imriel's time now.