Saturday, July 9, 2011

Naamah's Blessing - Jacqueline Carey

Naamah's Blessing is the third book in Carey's Moirin trilogy and the ninth in the Kushiel's Legacy series. Carey has indicated that it will be the last book in the series, at least for the moment, and that she intends to write an unrelated series after this, which will be more of an urban fantasy. She also has a second book coming out later this year. Saints Astray is the much anticipated sequel to Santa Olivia, one of my favourite books of 2009, and is scheduled for a November release. I very much look forward to reading that one. As for the Kushiel Series, it has had its ups and downs, personally I think it is a good idea that Carey is going to focus on something else for now. I wasn't terribly impressed with Naamah's Curse. This book is a bit better but still nowhere near the level of Kushiel's Dart, the outstanding first novel in the series.

After a long journey back form the east, Moirin and her husband Bao arrive back in Terre D'Ange. Although Moirin has followed her destiny and overcome the challenges she faced in Ch'in, she knows her adventures are not over yet. In fact, there is quite a lot of unfinished business to be taken care of. For one thing, Moirin is confronted with the daughter of the Queen, one of Moirin's many lovers who died in childbirth while Moirin was travelling. The King has not recovered from the death of his second wife well and it is turning into a full blown political crisis when the King's chancellor shows a bit more ambition than is proper for his position. There is also the matter of Raphael de Mereliot, another former lover who has developed decidedly megalomaniac tendencies. Resolving this loose end will require another long journey. One to the recently discovered New World.

Carey again takes us to a previously unexplored part of her world. We visit the Aztec and Inca empires in this novel, recently discovered by the Aragonians. It is mentioned that these new lands have been discovered in Moirin's lifetime, which is one of the most precise historical markers in the entire series. It would put this novel in the early 16th century. It also shows how much liberty Carey has taken with historical developments in over the course of the series. In Naamah's Blessing for instance, the suppresses the use of gunpowder in the Ch'in civil war, something that in our history was already pretty well established by that time in Europe. There's lot of historical details in these novels but for the sake of the story, Carey didn't attempt too much historical accuracy. Personally I would have appreciated it if some of the key elements in the series had been a bit more consistent but we have to keep in mind it is a work of fiction.

One of the works Carey used in researching this novel is Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel, which, to my shame, I have to admit I haven't read. I'm familiar with its central thesis though, that the dominance of Eurasian cultures can be explained by environmental and geographical factors rather than genetic or intellectual superiority. Of the three elements in the title, Carey has already taken care of the guns. She further levels the playing field by having Raphael offer a cure to the pox to the Nuhuatl (Aztec) Empire, much to the dislike of the Aragonians (Spanish). It inserts an interesting shade of grey into what would have other wise have been a classic evil overlord type of villain. Steel is also mention as something both the Aragonians and D'Angelines try to keep out of the hands of the Nuhuatl. She spoils the effect a little by having one of the characters behead someone in a single stroke using a maquahuitl (an wooden sword-like weapon with obsidian embedded in the blade), which strikes me as rather unlikely. Still, armour and horses are a great advantage.

In a world where the gods of many people seem to be able to influence life on earth, the way Carey deals with the human sacrifices a Aztec empire was known for is interesting. Carey has never shied away from behaviour that would be considered taboo in most cultures. This one is a bit more problematic than most though. Structural human sacrifice is rare in human history, certainly on a scale the Aztecs seemed to practice it. In a world where many of the sacrifices made to the gods are necessary, does this extend to human sacrifice as well? Early on in the novel it seems the Aragonians are attempting to stop the practice but human sacrifice is key to solving Moirin's problems. Until now, the sacrifices made by the main character in the book, no matter how horrible, where mostly personal in nature, Carey definitely enters into new territory here and not all readers will appreciate it.

Once we reach the stronghold of Raphael, my suspension of disbelief collapsed entirely in the space of a few pages. This was not actually caused by something the author did but rather a strange association my mind insisted on making. Rapheal, in Naamah's Kiss, acquired the language of ants from a demon he tricked Moirin into summoning for him. It turns out to be a curse as they don't have anything intelligent to say. When we meet Raphael again, he has turned this annoyance into a weapon and managed to find a way of controlling the ants by somehow having his body produce the right chemicals. Not this is a bit of a stretch already but it gets worse. Maybe 20 years ago I read a number of books in a series of absolutely dreadful westerns that were very popular here in the 1970s. They were written by a German author using the pen-name Conrad Kobbe and to my knowledge they have never been translated in English. Most of them were set in the American West but once in a while, the main character, a bandit hunter by the name of Conny Coll, ended up in South America as well. In one of those adventures features a voracious horde of army ants insisting on overrunning a fort of some kind. It was entertaining but also completely ridiculous. I can't remember how Coll overcame this obstacle but no doubt his aim was impeccable. Much to my amusement, Raphael does indeed order his ants to serve him as an army. Ouch!

One of the things I didn't like about Naamah's Curse is that for most of the book Moirin obediently obeys the instructions of the divine guide. This novel doesn't escape that entirely in this novel but at least the gods are a bit more cryptic. I also have to hand it to Carey, she knows how to plot a novel. In the finale of the trilogy, things fall in place very nicely indeed. Not a loose end in sight. That being said, I don't think the trilogy as a whole lives up the the promise of the first novel, which is without a doubt the strongest of the three. The gods manage to thoroughly douse the spark that made Moirin such an interesting character in Naamah's Kiss. Fans of the series will no doubt devour this book and love it. Personally, I think the plot is a bit too far-fetched even for a fantasy novel. All things considered, Carey has written better novels but it is far from her worst as well.

Book Details
Title: Naamah's Blessing
Author: Jaqueline Carey
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
Pages: 610
Year: 2011
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-446-19807-3
First published: 2011

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