Review of Naamah's Kiss by Jacqueline Carey
by Jacqueline Carey
With a little over a week left before I return to England, I went to the library and borrowed a few more books. As I was browsing the stacks, I noticed all three of these books next to each other on the shelf. Longtime library conossieurs will share with me the feeling of surprise and elation that one has when discovering the complete set of a series on one’s to-read list is there, ready to be borrowed in full. No waiting for a hold to come in, no disappointment as one discovers that the library has books one and three, but book two has mysteriously gone missing. I snapped up the trilogy, fully aware that these are lengthy books and I had already added four others to my bag. I’m not sure if I’m going to get these all finished before September 1, but I am going to try!
Naamah’s Kiss starts off a century or so after the events of Jacqueline Carey’s previous trilogy in this world. Phédre and Imriel and their assorted deeds have receded into the realm of history and legend. King Daniel rules Terre d’Ange, and a young girl of the Maghuin Dhonn, Moirin, sets off from Alba to find her destiny—and her father—in the City of Elua.
If you have nothing better to do with your day, you can catch up on my reviews of the previous six books set in this fantasy counterpart Europe (TVTropes). (Note that the reviews contain spoilers.) Fortunately, one doesn’t need to read the prior trilogies in order to understand or enjoy Naamah’s Kiss. I suspect one’s sympathies for certain characters might differ from a longtime fan’s—but that just makes things more interesting!
Moirin is half–Maghuin Dhonn, half–D’Angeline. She has super-awesome twilight bear-witch powers, and thanks to her other half, she’s on fantasy contraception (TVTropes) (a very convenient plot device given the amount of sex going on between these pages). Her father was a Priest of Naamah visiting Alba for a Cruarch’s coronation, and he and her mother felt a deep-seated spiritual need to get it on. Fast forward a decade or so, and Carey provides a quick look at Moirin’s childhood and adolescence as she lives, loves, and loses for the first time. Upon gaining adulthood, she ventures into the wider world, certain she must find her father and confront whatever destiny awaits her beyond Alba’s shores.
The plot is nothing special. Moirin’s early life has much less in the way of antagonists than Phédre’s did—there is no Melisande-equivalent here. Instead, aside from a few tragedies, she learns mostly from allies instead of enemies. There are essentially two stories that happen consecutively. First, Moirin meets and is charmed by Raphael de Mereliot, who seeks to use her unique magical gifts to further the ends of his research society. Second, Moirin travels to distant Ch’in, where she seeks to help her teacher Lo Feng restore Snow Tiger, the Emperor’s daughter, to health.
In the first story, Moirin is somewhat cast in the role of ingénue, with Raphael as a guiding father figure/love interest (I say somewhat, because she isn’t exactly innocent so much as naive about the depths of Raphael’s self-delusion). She is drawn to him by the pulse of her destiny. But she hates that he isn’t entirely hers, that he also loves the Queen. (This is an interesting reversal from her relationship with young Cillian, where he hated that she wasn’t entirely his.) Moirin wants to help Raphael and comes very close to losing herself in the process.
In the second story, Moirin is now a protégé of Master Lo Feng. She is learning more about herself and how to live in harmony with the world around her—a laudable goal for one of the Maghuin Dhonn. They reach Ch’in only to find the empire in turmoil, one of its trusted advisers having betrayed the Emperor and built guns in preparation for a bloody civil war. Turns out Snow Tiger isn’t possessed by a demon so much as a dragon, and Moirin’s skills are essential to keeping the dragon—which is really sorry about the inconvenience—pacified until they can get to the place where they can release it. From there, the plot becomes the standard “we have to get there before the bad guys catch us” fare.
I confess I’m a little disappointed. When I lay it out like that, it doesn’t seem very impressive. Yet I did enjoy this book. I suppose that’s because Carey makes Moirin’s development as a character so enthralling. She grows up, becomes aware of and experiments with her sexuality, and then realizes she needs to go very far away from home in order to grow further. She has to make some touch decisions at certain points—though this is undermined, I feel, by the
I enjoyed returning to Carey’s alterna-Europe far more than I thought I would. After the disappointment that was Mélusine, it was good to be reminded that it’s possible to create an entirely different world and drop an amazing number of names and history into the story without making it too confusing for the reader. Carey is constantly mentioning the names of far-off places we don’t visit and nobility whom we never meet; however, it never becomes overwhelming. And I’m sorry, but I’m not sure what it is that makes Carey’s exposition more comprehensible or tolerable than Monette’s.
Moirin is a pleasant change from the narrators of the previous trilogies. She is reminiscient of the very young Phédre from the beginning of the series: inexperienced, a little naive, and a constant surprise to herself and others. Unlike Phédre, however, Moirin lacks a D’Angeline upbringing and is thus unaware of how her involvement in court intrigue has truly altered balances of power. Moirin is also much more innocent in the arts of love-making, something upon which many of her D’Angeline patrons capitalize when manipulating and using her for their own ends.
On that note, is it just me, or is there more frequent and more explicit sex in this book than in previous? It’s been almost three years, so maybe I’m just imagining it, but I feel like the level of sex has ratcheted up with each book. It’s particularly notable in the first part of the book and then settles down to more perfunctory mentions in the latter part. I don’t know why people read Fifty Shades of Grey when series like this exist, because Carey offers the chance to read about sex on the page and enjoy an actual story with believable characters. You know, if you’re into that sort of thing. Personally, I find believable characters hot.
There’s a certain amount of fan service going here with the sex and all. However, Carey excels at blending the sex with the story in realistic ways. That is to say, she uses the effervescent sexuality of D’Angeline culture to analyze and subvert contemporary attitudes towards sex, gender roles, and power relations between genders. As a newcomer to this culture, Moirin is at a disadvantage: she has all the D’Angeline desire and none of the specialized cunning she should have been raised with. (She has her own brand of cunning, of course, which comes in handy—but it takes her a while to adapt it to court, and she gets pretty badly burned a couple of times.) Raphael de Mereliot takes advantage of her—but then Queen Jehanne takes advantage of him, in a way. So it isn’t just men exploiting women, or women exploiting other women.
Carey has created a very interesting culture in which both genders share very similar roles in terms of expectations of sex, work, and livelihood. In every role we see, whether it’s a servant of Naamah, priest, or nobility, we see examples of both men and women filling these positions. Of course, that doesn’t mean this is some kind of utopian society: people are still people, avaricious and fallible and flawed. And even in terms of sex and gender, D’Angeline culture has its own type of policing of gender expression—there is a notable absence of transgender people. Moreover, although women seem to be a lot more equal, there are still certain expectations (especially among the upper classes) regarding how women dress and act, with Florette and Lydia providing the example.
Carey’s portrayal of Ch’in was much less robust than her portrayals of other counterpart societies have been in the past. This is due in part to the plot, which has picked up the pace by the time they arrive in that country. However, one of the most outstanding things about this series is the diversity of its cultures: D’Angelines are notable for their devotion to free love, but other societies are much less sexually permissive. In previous books, Carey has explored the tension within her alterna-Europe and the conflicts this has caused. The discovery of the New World—called “Terra Nova” here—is a background event in Naamah’s Kiss, and I can only hope that future stories will see a protagonist visit those shores. For now, the race for the various powers of this continent to visit and claim that one promises to create some interesting politics.
Alas, if the description on the back cover of Naamah’s Curse is accurate, it looks like we’re in store for more personal and religious conflicts for Moirin. Which could be interesting, granted. Overall, Naamah’s Kiss has somewhat restored my faith in this world and Carey’s writing after the disappointment of the last trilogy. I’m not quite ready to sing its praises unreservedly, but I’m cautiously endorsing it for the adventurous.