Naamah’s Kiss by Jacqueline Carey

Naamah’s Kiss by Jacqueline Carey
Grand Central Publishing, June 2009, ISBN 978-0-446-19803-5

Jacqueline Carey is one of my favorite authors.  From the opening pages of the first book of hers that I picked up on a whim while on a business trip, I’ve been struck by her ability to weave epic stories and build iconic worlds and histories while keeping her complex main characters fresh and approachable.  I’ve hung on every page of her trilogy chronicling the story of Phèdre nó Delaunay (Kushiel’s Dart, Kushiel’s Chosen, Kushiel’s Avatar) and stayed up way too late many an evening continuing the saga with the trilogy of Phèdre’s foster son, Imriel de la Courcel (Kushiel’s Scion, Kushiel’s Justice, Kushiel’s Mercy).  She’s one of the few authors where I actually put publishing dates on my calendar and count down the days to being able to engulf myself in a new release.

So it was with eager anticipation that I awaited the first volume of her new trilogy set in the mythical realm of Terre d’Ange.  This one, I knew, was to follow the path of Moirin of the Maghuin Dhonn, child of the magical race whose mystical history was entwined with the celtic-like land of Alba, and whose impact in the history of the royal Courcels of Terre d’Ange was legendary and tragic.  The pre-published glimpses of the forthcoming first volume were enticing and promised that the wonderful stories of the Children of Elua would continue to unfold.

Would that I could report that this first volume, Naamah’s Kiss, lived up to those promises and anticipations.  Instead, this volume pales in comparison to its predecessors.  Where Carey’s earlier works revolved around a strong central character, the secondary characters were also very important, enlarging and defining the main character and actions.  Yes, the first Kushiel series was about Phèdre, but would have been nothing if not for her mentor, Anafiel Delaunay; her best friend, the delightful Tsingani  Hyacinthe; her companion and consort,  the Cassiline Brother Joscelin Verreuil; and her exquisite nemisis, Melisande Shahrizai.  In the second series, Imriel would not be nearly as interesting without his stalwart friend, Eamonn mac Grainne, his shy yet wise Alban princess bride Dorelei, and of course, his heart’s companion, the royal, golden Sidonie.  In both series, the journey of the main characters are not only personal, but highly political, affecting a broad spectrum of the worlds through which they journey, and are tied into religious, philosophical and other esoteric spectrums.

In Naamah’s Kiss, Moirin mac Fainche begins as a very compelling character.  The half breed daughter of a mystical bear-witch and a D’Angeline priest, Moirin is the child of the woods and the twilight.  She carries within her a spark that beckons life, and her gift is desire.  She learns of nature and magic and love from her eremitic mother, learns reading and history from her gentry neighbor (and later lover) Cillian, and embarks on the path of her diadh-anam (the soul-spark of the spirit).  Her destination is a mystery even to Moirin, save that it lies beyond a great water.  And here is where the story begins to lose power.

For wont of a better starting point for her journey, Moirin decides to travel to Terre d’Ange and seek out the father she never knew.  As she shares lineage with the ruling clan of Alba, she travels with some resources, although she has little understanding of the power of her connections.  However, scarcely has she entered the grand City of Elua, seat of the throne of Terre d’Ange, when her destiny collides quite literally with that of Raphael de Mereliot, the queen’s favored courtier and sometimes lover.  Well known as a keen medic, Raphael is also a secret occultist, hoping to unlock dangerous secrets to the benefit of mankind.  He discovers that Moirin’s gift of coaxing life out of waning plants complements his own healing gifts, and together they are able to conjure a great healing force, but at a great price to Moirin’s own health.

Fold into this an ethereally beautiful Queen Jehanne (who first toys with Moirin and then takes her to be her royal companion), the ancient and wise Ch’in mystic, Master Lo Feng, to whom Moirin becomes a willing pupil, and Lo Feng’s enigmatic guardian, Bo, and the story begins to expand and deepen.  But while previous works felt like the story was unfolding like a majestic tapestry, Naamah’s Kiss begins to feel like a soap opera.  Powerful characters bicker out of pettiness rather than with any kind of acerbic wit or dry humor, outlandish situations arise that are obviously of a danger yet the brightest and best of d’Angeline society blithely embrace.  Moirin beds everyone with a pulse, it seems… after all, her gift is desire, right?  But in Naamah’s Kiss, even the sex becomes burdensome.

Jacqueline Carey has always been able to write a good sex scene (sometimes her books are even considered part of the romance genre due to the role that sex plays in many of her works).  Sex in a Jacqueline Carey novel is always open and honest, never gratuitous or tawdry.  Sometimes she goes into exquisite detail, and sometimes she merely hints or suggests, but make no mistake – sex plays an important role in the lives and psyche of her characters.  After all, the motto for Terre d’Ange is “love as thou wilt”, and the Houses of the Night Court – home to the servants of Naamah, holy brothels – are accepted and indeed, revered in d’Angeline society.

However, sex becomes too convenient of a device in Naamah’s Kiss.  Although Carey has set the stage well – Moirin’s gift is desire, afterall, and half of her heritage is one of unfettered expression of that desire.  Still, the sex seems shallow and the scenes somewhat forced, given more importance than they truly hold – full of the sound and the fury, signifying nothing.  As Moirin’s allegiances shift and her knowledge of society and politics grows, she still is governed by simple desire which seems not only simplistic but even unrealistically naïve.

Eventually, Moirin’s destiny takes her with Master Lo Feng and his assistant, Bo (who has, unsurprisingly, become Moirin’s lover), to faraway Ch’in in an effort to avert a war.  Of course, Ch’in is “our” China – Carey builds her world squarely on our own, and that’s part of the charm of her stories – but in this case, her Orient is not exotic nor different enough to ring true.  While Carey is indeed allowed to paint her world in whatever colors she chooses, when an Eastern palate is evoked, it’s hard to keep seeing the techniques expressed with Western sensibilities.  While the idea of a trapped dragon, and the description of the dragon itself, is novel and captures the imagination, the familial relationships and circumstances surrounding the entrapment of the dragon is strained and feels disingenuous.

Unfortunately, also, Naamah’s Kiss lacks a truly entrenched villain to personalize the carnage and heartbreak that occurs.  Yes, there are villains in the Ch’in war, and yes, they are truly evil, but we are not emotionally vested in them, even though Carey strains the story to try and make it so.  Perhaps I am being too hard on the author in this position, but she set the barre so high in her earlier books that the lack of an adversary who directly threatens our heroine specifically because of who she is allows, for me, a detachment to the story as a whole – and I just don’t buy the final weepy father/son dynamic that is too little too late, and laid on too thick when it does occur.

In fact, if there were one thing that I would determine has distracted me from the beginning of Moirin’s story, it’s that Jacqueline Carey did indeed do such a wonderful job with her earlier offerings.  There is a feeling that she simply cannot maintain that level of endearment in her third set of characters as she did with her first set, and even her second.  Indeed, I would say that her Phèdre stories were superior to the Imriel ones, and those were far more involving than the Moirin story has been thus far.

But this will not keep me from eagerly anticipating the second volume of this set (Naamah’s Curse, set to release next month) to see where Moirin’s journey takes us.  While Naamah’s Kiss may seem a bit superficial to me, I have no doubt that the following volumes will deepen my involvement in the story of Moirin and her search for the fulfillment of her destiny.  Carey is a very talented writer, beyond her books set in Terre d’Ange.  Her  Sundering series, Banewrecker and Godslayer, are very different epic books which I enjoyed immensely, and her stand-alone novel, Santa Olivia, while very different from her other books, is exceptional in story and tone, while still maintaining Carey’s wonderful writer’s voice.  I will always be a fan of Jacqueline Carey, and even if I am critical of a single work, she still stands heads above most of the other alternate historical fantasy fiction writers struggling to build worlds both fully realized and engaging.  While I may recommend any of the Kushiel Legacy books before I would Naamah’s Kiss, I would not dissuade anyone from picking up any Jacqueline Carey book.  She truly is that good of a writer.

~ by arcticwren on May 12, 2010.

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