Jacqueline Carey is best known for her Kushiel series, two trilogies (and counting) set in a fantasy world loosely mapped onto Renaissance Europe. Naamah’s Kiss, the inauguration of a new series with the same setting, provides an opportunity to examine the secret of her success. Carey writes sensual, female-centered fantasy with an irresistible sense of adventure. Her world seems boundless, even when her characters succumb to a limited selection of traits and tropes. Naamah’s Kiss is a fine place to dive into this lush, expansive landscape.
The heroine of the new series is an adolescent named Moirin, the daughter of an indigenous forest-dweller and a foreign priest. When she undergoes her maternal people’s rite of adulthood, she learns that her destiny—and the acceptance of the divine bear she worships—depend on a journey to the civilized land of Terre d’Ange. There she discovers that Naamah, the goddess of sexual desire whom her father serves, also has a claim on her. But months spent developing her gift as the queen’s concubine (while also indulging in a dangerous liaison with a healer trying to conjure demons from the underworld) don’t satisfy her inner drive. Not until she studies the Oriental philosophy of a Ch’in master does she find that her purpose lies in aiding a possessed princess far across the sea.
It takes a steady hand to balance Moirin’s frequent sex scenes—boy-on-girl, girl-on-girl, and dragon-on-girl—with her maturing identity as a channel of manifold divine powers and an instrument of cosmic purpose. For all the bodice-ripper prurience of Carey’s sacred-prostitution premise, the heart of Naamah’s Kiss remains Moirin’s journey of self-discovery and the wonders of the lands where she travels. Supporting characters predictably fall into categories: lovers, sages, villains, and troubled-but-goodhearted swing voters. The Chinese-accented climax leads to a less-than-compelling setup for the next installment. But as in the Kushiel novels, Carey takes such pleasure in exploring her magical version of Earth—its history, cultural diversity, and religious/philosophical intricacy—that it’s easy to share her interest in what might be around the next corner.