I’ve seen Jacqueline Carey’s books on the shelves for several years now, but it was Naamah’s Kiss from the library that has made me decide I want to read more by her. I picked it up to read on the plane back from a trip, but I ended up watching Beauty and the Beast instead (and then coming home to watch it again because my husband had bought me a copy….).
So it was a few more days before I picked up this book, which I was pretty sure was just a crappy romance which would be obvious and entertaining at best.
I love being wrong sometimes.
Firstly, yes there is romance and sex scenes, but they are not very graphic. Carey weaves the feeling of sex and love without the details in language so many authors seem to think are required. There are few if any weird descriptions of a man’s body parts. Even fewer flowery prose on a woman’s body parts.
Secondly, I didn’t see where the romance was going at first and it doesn’t follow the most obvious path. It’s delicious that way. Especially as a romance novel, it weaves the sexuality of the characters into a world I would like to live in. A world where people are allowed to be as monogomous or polyamorous as is appropriate for them. Consent is huge, and I think this is the best representation of consent I’ve ever read in a non-modern novel. Period.
Carey’s characters carried this novel. Without a doubt, Moirin was an interesting enough character – but honestly it was the immersion into other people that really kept sparking me.
There is a cast of great characters: Moirin’s parents are very different, very real-feeling people. The tumultuous relationship Moirin has with society as a whole – always just a little outside of it because of her mother’s heritage – creates a bit of friction that allows Moirin to ask the questions the reader has. When she travels, she is curious and involved.
Moirin was sometimes disgustingly naive and…. forgiving isn’t the right word. Accepting might be. No one I’ve ever met is actually that compassionate. At least they shouldn’t be, the few I know who try tend to have every sob story in the world on their shoulder every day. They are always cleaning up after others who are too lazy and selfish to take command of their own lives.
And it isn’t just the antagonists that Carey brings to life. The people whom Moirin come to care about are just as rounded. From a warrior princess (no kidding – I totally imagined Queen Christina of Sweden being the same way) to a widow regent trying to hold her son’s kingdom together, Carey writes some awesome women. And not just leaders, but supporters. Women who want to support their loved ones, women who support someone out of necessity or fear. Women who move into roles of leadership or raise up others. The cast is varied.
The men are equally varied, from the lecherous old trader to the ruthless king and back to the compassionate healer. Men are driven by love, greed, desire, zealousness…. across the cast of characters, Carey makes Moirin deal with all these motivations in people. Both the positive and negative sides of those motives. I won’t say I liked every iteration, some of them I distinctly did NOT – but the very discomfort I felt when a character was being ruthless or selfish or cruel…. tells you how strong it was.
My favorite character (well, my favorite representation) is a cleric who is obsessed with making Moirin confess her sins. He is driven by power, but he thinks it’s religious zeal. It made me uncomfortable, and at least partly because I know it’s a very real motivation and plenty of people buy into it. As a writer – I admired her portrayal of the image without casting complete judgement (there was a little, but there was at least an attempt at empathy for the man). He hated Moirin’s magic. He claimed he didn’t hate her – but he couldn’t understand she and her magic were inseparable.
The magic of the world is also well done. Not perfect, the balance between magical and non-magical people is never made clear. Although Moirin has very clear magical gifts, it’s never 100% clear how many of who else does as well. There are some people (and objects) that clearly have magic as well – but they are the rare spikes of power. What does the common man interact with? Do they? I think they might, but I’m just not sure.
That is the strongest criticism I have on the magic.
I have to give huge props to Carey fo giving Moirin gifts of magic and then never changing them throughout the story. Oh, there is a little growth and development, but at the core the magic Moirin has at the beginning is the magic she has at the end. It is limited, Moirin doesn’t “magically” learn a new talent or spell just in time to save the day. She as frequently has to rely on her non-magical friends to deal with things her magic can’t handle. It’s the limitations of Moirin’s magic that made the three books intriguing.
The magic actually is also the view into the greatest weakness of the series:
The first book there are descriptions of locations, and there are some semblances to potential real world places (a “New World” and “Ch’in”) – but overall the lands, government, power – EVERYTHING described is not any place real. When the character goes to Ch’in, it could still just be a place that is inspired by/similar to China – and by that I mean “taken whole cloth and plopped into the fantasy world.”
It wasn’t until I hit the 3rd book and was flipping through the first few pages (on my tablet) and saw a map that I realized it WAS supposed to be set on “earth.”
The problem is that Moirin’s father’s culture (where she spends a good portion of the first book) is fiction. There are teases of Greek mythology, Christian mythology, druidic tradition, (probably) Renaissance french culture and a smattering of other cultural traditions smooshed together – but NOTHING to tell me it should be in one particular European tradition.
This is my one criticism of the work: Carey did this mish-mash of cultures in a fantastical (and honestly kind of fantastic) way for her primary/base culture- and then every other culture is well-researched-taken-whole-cloth and “set” in the “real world.” I would rather she had just used a random map and set all the cultures on something that was maybe a little similar to the real world, but not actually the real world – so 90% of what we see is the same! We didn’t see all the cultures. There might be others as weird and fantastical as Moirin’s!
Read it. In case you can’t tell, I DID enjoy this. Probably 4.5/5 enjoyment honestly. As long as you can stand the occasional sex scene, the plot is engaging, the characters great, the magic pretty fascinating, and the cultures are fun to meander through with Moirin. There are few people I wouldn’t recommend this to.