Naamah's Kiss

by Jacqueline Carey

Cover image

Series: Naamah #1
Publisher: Grand Central
Copyright: June 2009
ISBN: 0-446-19803-X
Format: Hardcover
Pages: 645

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Naamah's Kiss is the beginning of a new trilogy in the D'Angeline universe and will certainly be of interest to those who read and enjoyed the Kushiel's Legacy series (starting with Kushiel's Dart). However, it's also a fresh start, set some hundred years after Kushiel's Mercy and with an almost entirely unrelated set of characters. There's a distant connection there, mostly to enable the plot, and some scattered legends and history, but one could easily come to Carey's universe fresh with this book and not miss much.

I've been waiting for this book with both some eagerness and some nervousness. I love Carey's D'Angeline world, but I particularly love Phèdre (the heroine of the first trilogy) and her unique view on the world. The second trilogy mirrors that view somewhat and still features her as an occasional character, but this trilogy is a complete break. It has the challenge of building similar magic, but different enough that it wasn't retelling the previous story.

I think Carey succeeds almost entirely on the strength of her different approach with Moirin, the heroine of this series. Moirin is (intentionally, per Carey's blog) the opposite of Phèdre's sophistication. She's raised in the forest, comfortable and familiar with the wild and very uncomfortable indoors, and in many ways half-wild. She's also impetuous and a sensualist in ways that Phèdre was not. Her eagerness is a counterpoint to Phèdre's determination and earnestness. It gives the early chapters of Naamah's Kiss a much different feel, helped by keeping the action away from Terre D'Ange for the first hundred pages. By the time Moirin reaches territory familiar to long-time readers of this series, we're seeing it from new eyes, accustomed to her different history and perspective.

Naamah's Kiss, as even the uninitiated would guess from the title and cover, is as sensual and sexual as the rest of the series, but there too Carey takes a different approach. Moirin is more open, straightforward, and in a sense indulgent about her sexuality, and also struggles with it far less than either Phèdre or Imriel. This gives the book a lightness and a joy that has a different emotional tone than previous trilogies. Some readers, myself included, will miss the darkness and the intensity of the previous books (others will probably be comfortable with the diminished emphasis on power exchange), but Moirin is a thoroughly delightful and enjoyable protagonist and approaches her sexuality as naturally as any of Carey's previous characters. As with the previous books in the series, there's a fair bit of on-camera sex, but it rarely feels excessive and never crude.

The plot for the first third of the book or so follows a classic coming of age model. There's a typical helping of wish fulfillment: like other Carey heroines, Moirin is strikingly beautiful, competent, magic-touched, and talented. But she's such an open-hearted and delightful character that it's hard to hold any of that against the story. She wears her heart on her sleeve and dives headlong into each new opportunity, and she gets her footing and grows largely from her own wits. The mentor figure comes late to the story and leaves her to do much of her growing on her own.

For me, the highlight of Naamah's Kiss is the middle third of the book, which features intrigue mixed with a delightful and unexpected love story while exploring a few more corners of Carey's well-constructed mythology. Moirin echoes one of my favorite supporting characters from Phèdre's story in a way that adds greatly to the depth and place of Naamah's servants in Terre D'Ange. It's beautifully done, with some deeply touching and emotional moments and a lightness and deftness of love that Carey hadn't previously focused on.

The final third of the book takes a dramatic shift, so much so that it felt like the novel had a false ending before the final segment. It will come as no surprise to anyone who looks at the map in the beginning of the book that the characters will travel farther afield. This time, Carey adds a version of China to her world (with substantial foreshadowing of North America for book two or three of this trilogy). And it's here, despite some excellent human and non-human characterization, that I had a few problems.

A strength of the D'Angeline setting is Carey's elaborate reworking of Western mythology. She turns Christianity on its head with a nearly pantheistic, non-Pauline version of its teachings, adds in a sort of messianic Judaism that at times seems like traditional Christianity to confuse matters, and blends in a healthy helping of angelic mythology and tidbits of Celtic, Norse, and Slavic. These are the core mythologies of her primary audience, so she can take significant liberties and still expect the reader to recognize parallels and contrasts. It provides at times a surprisingly deep and unusual perspective on many common questions of religion.

Introducing China, and with it a completely separate but fully-formed mythology, is not easy. Chinese mythology is not the core mythology of either the typical reader or (I presume) the author. The background and depth required for that sort of imaginative reworking isn't there. The stereotype therefore tempts. It's too easy to step in the trap of adding standard Western-perspective Orientalism for the taste of the exotic without understanding the source material and doing some equivalent reworking. And, given the presence of a calm elderly Chinese mentor, a magic based on breathing and energy flows, mountain temples, and rather a lot of discussion of the Mandate of Heaven, I think Carey walked straight into that trap.

That makes it sound a bit worse than it is. I adored Carey's treatment of dragons, the Chinese mentor develops into a bit less of a stereotype than he could have been, and the emotional connections Moirin forms in the last part of the book are as heartfelt and engaging as her connections elsewhere in the story. But this is not Carey's style of mythological reworking; sadly, parts of it could have come from any US or European novel that uses a simplified version of Chinese mythology for an exotic setting. It didn't ruin my enjoyment of the end of the book, but it bugged me. (And I'm dreading the possibility of the same treatment of Native Americans.)

That one flaw aside, this is an excellent start to a new D'Angeline trilogy and a thoroughly enjoyable, engaging novel in its own right. It ends with a clear setup for the next book of the trilogy, but it reaches a satisfactory plot climax of its own and provided enough closure that I don't mind waiting for the next book. (It helps that Carey delivers them reliably while in the middle of a trilogy.) I doubt anyone is going to replace Phèdre as my favorite of all of Carey's characters, but Moirin is still a delight to read about. Highly recommended for anyone who enjoyed either of the previous trilogies, including those disappointed by Imriel's. If you're new to this universe, I still recommend starting with Kushiel's Dart, a better book than this one. But I doubt you'd be disappointed by Naamah's Kiss.

Followed by Naamah's Curse.

Rating: 9 out of 10

Reviewed: 2009-09-25

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21