Naamah's Kiss is the seventh book in the fantasy/alternative history series of epic proportions that began with the excellent Kushiel's Dart. It is also something of a new beginning for the series. While the first six books tell the story of Phèdre and her adopted son Imriel, Naamah's Kiss is set much later. It tells the story of Moirin, great-great-granddaughter of Alais the Wise. I was not impressed by Carey's previous effort Kushiel's Mercy, it was the poorest book in a trilogy that was a lot weaker than the previous one to begin with, but a fresh start got my hopes up that the series had reached a turning point. To a point that has proven true. Naamah's Kiss is not without it's flaws but definitely better than the books in Imriel's trilogy.
The heroine of this book is Moirin, through her ancestor Alais a descendant of both D'Angeline and Alban royalty. She does not grow up in a palace though, Alais' descendants chose to follow the way of the Maghuin Dhonn. Moirin grows up living in the wild in a cave with only her mother for company. This solitary lifestyle means she does not learn of her mixed blood until she and her mother visit a gathering of the Maghuin Dhonn. Her mother reveals that she is the result of a dalliance with a travelling priest of Namaah. Moirin's D'Angeline blood is more recent than she thought.
Moirin fervently hopes the Bear goddess of the Maghuin Dhonn will accept her as one of her people despite her mixed blood but there are signs that she is not the only goddess watching over her. Naamah, the bright lady as Moirin thinks of her, stakes her claim as well. Her gift of desire manifests itself in Moirin. When the then sixteen year old Moirin goes through a rite of passage of the Maghuin Dhonn, one that will show if the Bear goddess will indeed accept her. The result is confusing. The goddess accepts her but it is clear that her destiny does not lie on Alba. The young, sheltered and somewhat naive Moirin decides to depart for Terre d'Ange in search of her father. Her voyage will take her much further than Terre D'Ange though, further than she ever expected. All the way to Ch'in in fact.
In the previous six books, the leading divine force driving the characters has been Kushiel, one of Elua's companions who sees chastisement as an act of love. In Judeo-Christian mythology he is one of the seven angels of punishment. A very hard god to worship indeed. In this book we shift to Naamah, the companion who laid down with strangers when Elua was hungry to provide food. Her priests, Namaah's servants, worship through the holy act of prostitution. In Jewish mythology Namaah is a demon associated with prostitution. An altogether different creature. This shift is noticeable in the book, although it is never easy to serve one of Elua's companions, Naamah's Kiss is not as dark as some of the earlier books.
Picking Naamah is something of a risk for Carey. Her presence in Moirin usually manifests itself as desire. It is a challenge to make sure the reader does not see her as a character who is constantly horny and very impulsive (come to think of it, this is an apt description of a lot of teenagers). Moirin takes quite a few male and female lovers in the course of the book, Carey's books are not something people with a conservative sexual morale would enjoy, but I think she stays just short of overdoing it. I suppose you could say her sexual experiences guide her to the destiny she is seeking. They are definitely experiences that help her learn and grow and, like previous books, they are very much romanticized. I will admit whether or not Carey manages to keep the Moirin's sexual escapades within limits the story can handle is a debatable matter though.
The destiny Moirin is chasing is one of the two major problems I have with this book. It is absolutely unclear to Moirin what it is she is looking for. Apparently it is something of a you'll know it, when you see it experience. It does mean that Moirin spends a lot of time waiting for the next clue form her Bear goddess. She sets herself several limited goals in the course of the book but the direction of the story very much depends on this divine guidance. Not until we are some 380 pages into the book (out of 645 in my copy), do we even get an idea of the true challenge Moirin will have to face in this novel. Which leads me to the second flaw, in my opinion Carey takes too long building up to this point. Once we get there the story moves very quickly to the climax of the book. Battles are not Carey's forte but some more attention to the threatening civil war would have been an option. Or perhaps some digging into the past of Moirin's teacher Lo Feng? Given the importance of the events in Ch'in in the book, some more effort on fleshing out this culture would have been justified. Hopefully Carey will pay some more attention to this nation in the next two books in this trilogy.
All in all I thought this book was a whole lot better than the previous three books. Unlike Imriel, Moirin is a very likeable character. She's impulsive, inquisitive and smart (and also unreasonably gifted in the language department but let's not get into that), a very lively character. Naamah's Kiss misses the dark, somewhat threatening, presence of Kushiel. A change in atmosphere that may take some getting used to for some readers. I think this shift in time frame and atmosphere has done the series a lot of good though. A fresh start is what the series needed and a fresh start is what Carey delivers. Let's hope she can keep moving away from the low that was Kushiel's Mercy.
Title: Naamah's Kiss
Author: Jacqueline Carey
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
First published: 2009