Few writers are capable of capturing the truth about love. God knows many have tried. Our supermarkets and bookstores overflow with bodice rippers, vampire romances, and relationship "cozies" with titles like The Man I'll Marry. Shakespeare seemed determined to find the right ratio of cross-dressing heroine to dashing hero. In his golden years Stephen King has let more of his characters get their groove on, and emerged with the confounding Lisey's Story and Bag of Bones. When I saw Cormac McCarthy's The Road stashed between Danielle Steele and Michelle Willingham at the checkout stand this afternoon I wondered what he'd do with some raging hormones and a low cut dress. Perhaps it's better not to ask. Just because you're good with demons doesn't mean you're good at lovin'.
Love is so universal an experience you'd think any of us could get it right on the page but it's simply not true. Just ask the witty and genuinely learned gals over at Smart Bitches, Trashy Books (a romance novel blog) who routinely blast the purple prose and penises of their favorite genre. Even career bodice rippers like Rosemary Rogers (whose work once horrified me as a fourteen-year-old) often fail to grasp the difference between shallow sexual fantasy and true love.
This is not the case with Jacqueline Carey who, with the seventh installment in her Kushiel's Dart/Terre d'Ange series, Naamah's Kiss, can now be declared, without any doubt, the high priestess of romance—genre delineations be damned.
It's been awhile since I walked in Terre d'Ange, Carey's re-imagined Renaissance France where sexual pleasure is religion and courtly intrigue life. I read her initial Kushiel series (Kushiel's Dart , Kushiel's Chosen , Kushiel's Avatar ), featuring the sexually masochistic heroine Phèdre nó Delauney, some years back and recognized Carey's originality—but surely, after 1,500 pages of globe-trotting, sword wielding, sadomasochistic fun, the sequels starring Phèdre's adopted son Imriel de Courcel (Kushiel's Scion , Kushiel's Justice , Kushiel's Mercy ) would just be the same old whips and chains, right? I've yet to go back and read Imriel's tale but after experiencing such pleasure with Naamah's Kiss that's an assignation I'll have to arrange.
Unlike the other Kushiel books, Naamah's Kiss is the story of a young woman with more traditional sexual desires. Moirin mac Fainche is a literal wild child, living in the green hills and caves of Alba (Carey's Celtic milieu) where her people, the Maghuin Dhonn, worship a female bear goddess. Her priestess mother teaches her to "summon the twilight" (turn invisible), an ability which also acts as a neat metaphor for the place of Moirin's people in Alba's greater society. This being Carey, Moirin is destined to do far more than sit in a cave acting mysterious. Her call comes in the form of a young man named Cillian, a lord's son, who comes to offer tribute to his invisible neighbors, and befriends the curious young Moirin. As she did in Phèdre's story, Carey takes us through Moirin's childhood and sexual awakening, the last not just a set-up for some steamy sex (though the sex soon arrives) but an event that will change her heroine's life and set her on her path.
When Cillian came that spring for the first time in long months, I saw [my beauty] reflected in another's eyes. I was boiling tender lily buds over the hearth-fire and sensed him coming long before he arrived, a trail of disruption in his wake. He bounded into our campsite on long legs, his voice turned deep and booming.
'Moirin!" he shouted, 'Moirin! I'm sorry I've been away so long, but there's the most amazing news—'
I stood. 'Oh, aye?'
He blinked. 'Moirin?'
In that moment, the balance of power shifted between us forever. (p. 43)
In our era of airbrushed magazine covers and softcore reality shows (The Bachelor, anyone?) it's truly a pleasure to see a writer depict sex and love with the raw authenticity it deserves. What lovelorn sixteen-year-old hasn't elevated their own burgeoning desire to Wagnerian heights? Carey takes it even further. Moirin's observance about the balance of power is not merely the very in-character observation of a melodramatic girl experiencing first love: it's prophecy. Soon we learn of Moirin's connection to Naamah, the Goddess of Desire and never again will our heroine be the same carefree child of nature we've come to adore.
Again, Moirin's path is similar to Phèdre's. There's a lot of traveling in Naamah's Kiss, as there was in Kushiel's Dart. We visit the glittering, hedonistic Terre d'Ange with its scheming nobles, secret societies and pleasure houses—then we travel to Chi'in, a splendid recreation of medieval China complete with ornate canons and ice dragons. But Moirin, with her emerging magical powers and interest in sharing (as opposed to merely bearing the brunt of) pleasure, could not be more different from Phèdre, who always knew exactly who she was and thus provided a different kind of narrative tension than the quest of identity Moirin tackles here. And though Carey still writes with the same effortless grace with which she penned Phèdre (and while Phèdre's unique sexuality will always make her the more interesting heroine) she has also managed to capture a completely different tone for Moirin, one decidedly more steeped in the natural world (Phèdre, as readers recall, grew up in the city):
Sunset turned to dusk. Twilight rose from the garden beneath me, hundreds of herbs and shrubs exhaling wistfully at the passing of the sun. It was profoundly comforting. I drew the essence of the D'Angeline twilight deep into my lungs and breathed it out, letting it surround me like a cloud. (pp.149-50)
Carey's prose is, as ever, gorgeous and simple. She weaves a tapestry of sensation and atmosphere without ever reverting to the purple prose so many romances depend on. When Moirin gets to bedding gorgeous queens, cursed princesses, and gallant Chi'in warriors (her repartee with primary love interest Bo makes good use of their vastly different cultural heritages) the sexual excess flirts with your suspension of disbelief but, as Carey refrains from coy euphemisms, never tips over into sentimentality.
Or almost never. In the later half of the book, Moirin's adventures with the Chi'in princess Snow Tiger seem to test the limits of believability—and it has nothing to do with the vivacious dragon spirit that possesses Snow Tiger's body. At first Carey wisely steers away from a sexual relationship between the two women (Moirin has already bedded the Queen of Terre d'Ange by then, and how lucky can one cave-raised country girl possibly be?) but eventually the believable friendship forged between two young women on the run succumbs to the sighs of the bedchamber. This seems unrealistic, particularly given the more rigid nature of Chi'in culture, and yet, both characters have, by book's end, suffered such flights of danger it's hard not to get teary-eyed when the pent up princess at last requests Naamah's Blessing. Even when it's clearly wish fulfillment—or maybe because it is—Carey's writing wins us over.
Hannah Strom-Martin lives and writes in California.