Naamah's Blessing

by Jacqueline Carey

Cover image

Series: Naamah #3
Publisher: Grand Central
Copyright: June 2011
ISBN: 0-446-19807-2
Format: Hardcover
Pages: 610

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This is the third book in Moirin's series, and while there's less narrative momentum carrying over from Naamah's Curse than from the first book (homecomings at the end of a journey aren't as suspenseful), it's best to read the series in order. For one thing, the previous books are better, and for another, the horribly painful recap is not a good way to consume earlier events.

I recently ranted about authors not putting a recap of previous events in a factual prefix to their book. The same rant applies here. Carey instead opts for painfully wedging a recap into the first chapter of the book, and she's horribly bad at it. When combined with the pseudo-archaic language of this series, which I don't remember being this jarring in Phèdre's story, that first chapter is simply awful. Thankfully, the recap is at least concentrated there and one stops noticing the mayhaps once the plot gets started.

This is, as all series readers have been expecting since the foreshadowing in Naamah's Kiss, the one where they go to America. (I do wish this series hadn't turned into map exploration.) But it opens with Moirin and Bao returning to Terre d'Ange, and to court politics.

A friend commented that he could have done with 95% more Terre d'Ange in this book, and I can only agree. The sections set there are by far the best part. Moirin cannot play politics anywhere near as well as either Phèdre or Imriel, but she has a naive charm and open kindness and empathy that play directly into the stories that the D'Angelines like to tell about themselves and their country and culture. This gives her an unusual sort of power that she can leverage, and when she's aided by some unlikely allies, the resulting political maneuvering is fascinatingly different than the more typical intrigues of the earlier trilogies. I would have been happily engrossed in an entire book of Moirin trying to figure out how she could successfully play court politics while neither wanting to nor being Phèdre. I think it would have been better than the book Carey wrote.

But, sadly, the plot says the characters must eventually go off to Central America. And, by the plot, I mean the author all but literally shows up in the story and tells Moirin she has to go to Central America to solve the court intrigues. So, dutifully, off she goes, despite this making questionable sense within the story. Moirin is not without allies and influence at court, and previous Carey characters have found their own unique ways to work the system. Moirin is going off in search of an expedition believed lost, and at the furthest limits of the transportation system of her world. It's not a completely unreasonable thing to do, but neither is it obviously the right move — except, of course, that the author tells us it's the right move in no uncertain terms.

Moirin has felt guidance from her inner connection to the Maghuin Dhonn throughout this series, and it's been a bad idea from the start. The problem with giving a character an internal guiding connection with her goddess is that unless the goddess is sometimes wrong (which she's obviously not here) or you make that relationship itself the center of the plot (and it's not), it's horribly tempting to instead use it for plot guidance. It provides a cheap and easy way to get the characters to go where you want them to go without having to come up with real reasons. But it's cheap. It takes away the agency of the characters, it takes away the reader's process of second-guessing the characters and the plot, and it robs the plot of something vital. It's been a problem throughout the series, but it's only a minor problem when the guidance is particularly vague or when there are other reasons for the characters to head that direction anyway. Here it felt like Carey saying "look, this is where the plot is going to go, so get on a ship and off with you."

At the other end of that voyage is not, thankfully, the Noble Savage train wreck that I was expecting. Instead, we get Aztecs and then Incas. This was not horrible; it's about as well-handled as Carey's take on Buddhism and Hinduism, which means it could have been much worse. But it's still a bit of a problem.

The brilliance of this world is Carey's twisting of European Christianity, religious infighting, and feudal culture into something fascinating and strange. To do this well requires a deep understanding of the original (or at least our modern understanding of the original), which Carey clearly has. I completely understand the temptation to take that funhouse mirror on a road show and see how other religions and cultures may look when similarly twisted. But it's a rare author who also has sufficient detailed and internalized understanding of those other religions and cultures to pull off a similar reworking, and Carey is not that author. That means that once she gets outside of Europe, she starts walking a thin line between orientalism and turning everyone into Europeans. She does a better job walking that line than many, but she inevitably stumbles off it from time to time.

Here, she has an impossible task. The most immediate and strongest image that the average Western reader has of Aztec or Incan religion is human sacrifice. As an author, you have to deal with that when you're playing with their religion. But doing that on its own terms, without making the religion a straight evil force, is horrifically difficult. Carey avoids most of the obvious landmines while still making human sacrifice part of the story, but she still has to mostly tiptoe around it. It's unsatisfying; she avoids turning the culture into the villain, which is very good, but in the process I thought she distanced the reader from the implications of it so much that it didn't have the emotional impact that it should have had. She does have some hooks built into the world, like the idea that the gods use their chosen hard, that might have worked, but it would have been hard. That's why I would have preferred she not attempt it.

Apart from that, the story in America is... okay. It's mostly a long trek through jungle, which is not my favorite thing to read about, in part because the obstacles and threats are so predictable. There's a suitably evil villain at the end of the trip, with a very effective and creepy ability, and Carey does ramp up the tension and put Moirin in some difficult situations. And I think Carey deserves major points for having the impact of the main threat on the surrounding population be almost as significant as dealing with the threat itself. It's not a bad adventure, and Moirin is fun to spend time with.

That being said, I never felt like there was a Moirin-shaped hole in this plot. It's not clear why Moirin had to be the one in America doing these things, as opposed to some other character, and that takes a lot of the emotional impact and character development out of the story.

Both of the previous books in this series had definite Moirin-shaped holes in their plots into which she had to step. No other character could have possibly had that same story. This is particularly true for the best part of the series: the religious debates in Naamah's Curse. But here, while Moirin's magic, empathy, and willingness to have sex with people are all very useful, the story is not personal in the way that the previous two books were. Moirin is here because of her duty to her semi-adopted homeland and to some specific people, not because the story constructed itself around her personally. This isn't a fatal problem; one can tell a good story about someone who was just the one in the right place to do something about a problem. But that isn't Carey's style, and it doesn't fit as well with the strong emotional engagement that Carey otherwise creates in her epic fantasy.

Overall, this is a mixed bag, and a somewhat unsatisfying book. There are parts that are very good, such as the early book when Moirin has just returned to Terre d'Ange. There are some lovely bits in the later story, and I thought the climax, particularly the immediate aftermath of the climax, was very strong. It has a creative and chilling threat. But the characters are shoved into the plot by the author, Bao is given a role that felt completely forced to me, and the story doesn't feel as significant, personal, or intense as Carey does at her best. Combine that with some annoying map exploration and the dubious decision to tour other world religions — here one of the most difficult for an American author to pull off — and the result is a book with some serious issues.

I still enjoyed reading Naamah's Blessing, and I would still recommend reading it if you liked the rest of the series. But I think it's the weakest book of the trilogy, and the missed opportunities are frustrating. If Carey ever comes back to this world, I want a series set firmly and exclusively in Terre d'Ange and the surrounding countries, one that restricts itself to the Abrahamic family of religions where Carey knows enough to do effective twisting.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2011-12-05

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21