If you like alternate history, alternate sexuality, and crazy international intrigue, you won't be able to resist Kushiel's Mercy. In bookstores this month, it's the final adventure in Jacqueline Carey's bestselling, six-novel Kushiel cycle set on a medieval Earth where Christianity never took hold. While the first three novels detailed the adventures of Phedre, a prostitute/spy with the superpower of erotic masochism — you'd be surprised how handy this is as a superpower! — the second three focus on her adoptive son Imriel. At last, in his third and final novel, Imriel is coming into his own. I had nearly given up on the series, despite adoring the Phedre novels, but Kushiel's Mercy was a return to form for Carey.
It's always a delight to come back to Carey's elaborately-conceived alternate world. Most European and Mediterranean countries are pagan, while France (here called Terre D'Ange) took up a form of polytheistic, pseudo-Christianity founded by Elua, the bastard child of Jesus and Mary Magdalene. Our heroes hail from Terre D'Ange, a land where prostitutes are revered and holy scripture bids everyone to "love as thou wilt." The politics are crisp and intriguing, and every adventure is packed with cool battle strategies and entertaining cultural details.
The spawn of super-dominatrix and supervillain Melisande, Imriel spends the first two books in his series overcoming his unhappy, pre-Phedre childhood and proving his loyalty to the kingdom his mother betrayed. Here, as in the previous novel, we find Imriel pining for Sidonie, the princess of Terre D'Ange and the one woman he's forbidden to love. Sidonie returns his passion, but nobody in the kingdom can deal with the idea of her marrying a man whose mother many years ago tried to stage a coup and sell the country out to Skaldia (Germany). The Imriel/Sidonie romance remains lukewarm — I never liked it in previous novels, and it just feels too stagey for words (falling in love with a princess? am I in fourth grade?). Luckily, their romance is merely a motivating force but not center stage for most of the novel.
Instead, the novel is a meditation on the madness of war and conquest. Carthage, which wants to secure an alliance with Terre D'Ange in order to conquer Aragnoia (Spain), manages to generate a kind of mass hallucination in the capital city of Terre D'Ange which convinces the leaders of the country to make that alliance. And Sidonie is convinced to marry the leader of Carthage, despite her love for Imriel. Most of the novel is about Imriel's quest to restore sanity to the kingdom, and to rescue Sidonie from her delusion. It's a tidy way for Carey to make her characters behave in a way that is profoundly out of character, and to give Imriel and Sidonie a chance to fall in love again (slightly more believably this time).
I say it's tidy, but the story actually works. Partly that's because Imriel is forced to turn to his villainous mother for aid, which gives Carey a chance to suggest that even the most foul of people might be able to redeem themselves given a chance. Pleasing also is Carey's exploration of madness in this novel. So many key characters go crazy — and some crazy characters at last come to their senses — that there's a genuine sense of development that felt lacking in the first two Imriel books. As Imriel ventures across Aragonia and the native-held lands of Euskerria bordering it, he realizes that heroism is itself a kind of madness. Especially in a world where heroes are all forged in bloody, horrifying wars that leave royalty relatively safe while destroying whole generations of common folk.
I think the biggest problem in Kushiel's Mercy, aside from the still-blah romance between golden-haired princess Sidonie and brooding Imriel, is Carey's attempt to maintain the sexual spice of the first three novels in the Kushiel series. Part of what made those novels so popular was Carey's ability to mix transgressive sex with compelling spy stories — and that made perfect sense in the Phedre books. Phedre is, after all, a prostitute: She is required to have sex for her job, and her adoptive father trains her in the "arts of covertcy" so that she can use her sexuality to ferret out secrets from her powerful patrons in the royal court. Plus, her superpower is that she is aroused by pain, no matter who causes it or why. So again, this makes sexuality central to her character, especially since she's always being kidnapped and tortured during her super-spying adventures.
Imriel, however, is not a prostitute nor does he have a sexual superpower. He's just a son of privilege with royal blood who happens to like a little kinky sex once in a while. Liking kinky sex is not a superpower, especially when anybody in our current timeline can shop at Hot Topic and Babeland. Carey dutifully throws in some slightly racy sex scenes between Imriel and Sidonie (ohhh, he rips her shirt and uses a quirt on her back! ohhh, he ties her up with silken bonds!), but these scenes feel like something her editor requested to retain the flavor of the earlier series rather than something necessary to advance the plot. I mean, if Carey had really wanted to continue in the sex-centric universe of the Phedre novels, she could have given Imriel a superpower like the ability to make people get aroused while experiencing pain. I mean, why not? That's no more preposterous than Phedre's power, and Imriel is the son of the most skillful dominatrix in Terre D'Ange.
But obviously Carey didn't want to do that — she had other plans for Imriel. And at last, in this novel, those plans come to startling fruition. Imriel's superpower is that he is a great protector of women, like his adoptive father Joscelin, the monk-ninja who guards and then becomes consort to Phedre. In the Phedre novels, we never fully understand what motivates a celibate monk to fall in love with a prostitute. But in Kushiel's Mercy we begin to understand, as Imriel slowly discovers what his real role will be in Sidonie's life and the life of the kingdom he serves. He knows he won't be a great ruler (that's Sidonie's job), and he won't be a great scholar (though his adoptive mother Phedre is one of the greatest thinkers in the land). Instead, he will be the guardian of a great woman, the man behind the throne. Master in the bedroom, he is merely an attendant upon power in public life. Watching Imriel learn this, and what it means to him, is what kept me reading Kushiel's Mercy and got me excited about what Carey has in store for us next.
[Kushiel's Mercy via Amazon]