As I mentioned in my reviews of Kushiel's Dart, Kushiel's Chosen, and Kushiel's Avatar, I felt incredibly dumb to have waited for over a decade to finally give the first Kushiel series a shot. The first two installments were great. And yet, regardless of their high quality, Kushiel's Avatar blew them out of the water. Doubtless, it's one of the very best fantasy novels I have ever read.
Dumb as I am, I don't intend to make the same mistake with Jacqueline Carey's Kushiel's Legacy, the second trilogy set in the same universe. I was a bit concerned because this new series would feature Imriel's point of view instead of Phèdre's perspective. But overall, the boy's POV nearly worked as well as that of his foster mother at a younger age. And although Kushiel's Dart had more going for it than Kushiel's Scion as the opening chapter in a larger, more complex tale, it's obvious that the author has a lot more in store for young Imriel and his entourage. And I'm definitely looking forward to what comes next!
This first volume had big shoes to fill. After all, Carey's first Kushiel trilogy is, in my humble opinion, one of the most awesome speculative fiction series of all time. Kushiel's Avatar, which garnered a perfect score from me, was the culmination of a panoply of convoluted plotlines that had been built over the course of three books. With that novel being such a grand slam, perhaps it raised the bar too high and created lofty expectations that could not possibly be met by whatever would follow. To all ends and purposes, Kushiel's Scion turned out to be a transition novel bridging the gap between the two Kushiel trilogies and an introduction setting the stage for what will take place in the two subsequent installments. And though it may not be as satisfying as its predecessor, Kushiel's Scion is nevertheless head and shoulders above pretty much everything else on the market today.
Here's the blurb:
Imriel de la Courcel's birth parents are history's most reviled traitors, but his adoptive parents, the Comtesse Phedre and the warrior-priest Joscelin, are Terre d'Ange's greatest champions. Stolen, tortured and enslaved as a young boy, Imriel is now a Prince of the Blood; third in line for the throne in a land that revels in art, beauty and desire. It is a court steeped in deeply laid conspiracies---and there are many who would see the young prince dead. Some despise him out of hatred for his mother, Melisande, who nearly destroyed the entire realm in her quest for power. Others because they fear he has inherited his mother's irresistible allure---and her dangerous gifts. As he comes of age, plagued by unwanted desires, Imriel shares their fears. When a simple act of friendship traps Imriel in a besieged city where the infamous Melisande is worshiped as a goddess and where a dead man leads an army, the Prince must face his greatest test: to find his true self.
In the past, Jacqueline Carey's worldbuilding has been absolutely astonishing. The backdrop for this fantasy universe isn't the habitual European medieval environment. It is more akin to the Renaissance era and it is set in an alternate version of Western Europe. With each new book, the author took us on fabulous journeys that enabled readers to discover more about her universe and she never disappointed in doing so. Richly detailed and imagined in terms of cultures, religions, and politics, like its predecessors Kushiel's Scion is another textured and sophisticated novel that hits all the right buttons. However, the novel is not as dense and sprawling as the first trilogy and the action is limited to Terre d'Ange (France) and Tiberium (Rome) and its surrounding. And as has been the case with all the Kushiel installments thus far, the web of murder and political intrigue that Carey wove through this one is as incredible and unexpected as the politicking of such masters as George R. R. Martin and Katherine Kurtz. Moreover, revelations about the Unseen Guild turned things up a notch.
As I've been saying since the beginning, Jacqueline Carey writes with an elegance that reminds me of Guy Gavriel Kay at his best. I've always been a plot kind of guy, and thus I rarely praise a writer's prose. Be that as it may, Carey's prose is something really special and I have a feeling that it could well be the very best in the genre today. Even the darkest and more shocking scenes are written with a distinctive literary grace that makes them even more powerful than they would be in the hands of a less gifted author. Once again in Kushiel's Scion, her gripping prose creates an imagery filled with wonder and beauty that never fails to enthrall. And like Robin Hobb, Carey also possesses a subtle human touch which imbues some scenes with even more emotional impact. Finally, again à la Hobb, Carey makes her characters suffer like few other genre authors. Given the dark and disturbing events that Imriel was forced to live through in Kushiel's Avatar, you would have thought that the poor guy deserves a break. Alas, like FitzChivalry, it appears that fate is not done with Imriel. Not by a long shot.
Some readers have complained about the novel's structure. Yes, about one third of it focuses on Imriel's teenage years and people have criticized the fact that not much actually takes place. That may be true, but I believe that these chapters were necessary to bridge the gap between the two trilogies. Not only that, but it was also important to give Imriel a voice and establish what sort of person he is. Living under the woke of the Mahrkagir of Drujan has left the boy scarred physically, psychologically, and emotionally. And in order to find his true self, Imriel needs to learn how to deal with the pain associated with those disturbing memories. That won't be easy and that first portion of Kushiel's Scion was required in order to establish Imriel as a three-dimensional protagonist and to provide the character growth needed for him to become a young adult eager to find and prove himself. In addition, from a purely selfish standpoint, for me it was a pleasure to get reaquainted with Phèdre, Joscelin, Ti-Philippe, and the rest of the household. Some scenes are uplifting and bring a smile to your face, while others will break your heart.
In all of my reviews so far, I mentioned that a woman who embraces her sexuality can be quite intimidating to men. Even more so, I opined, to male SFF geeks. I felt that Phèdre's disconcerting (according to many, even in today's Western society) sexuality, what with it being tinged with sadomasochism, undoubtedly had something to do with the fact that the Kushiel novels were not held in such high esteem as some of the boys' club favorites like Sanderson, Rothfuss, Lynch, and Abercrombie. I also believe that Phèdre's sexuality and the way sex is portrayed and used throughout these books certainly have something to do with the fact that Carey's novels seldom make the cut when feminist SFF bloggers/reviewers suggest books and series written by female SFF authors to read. And, once more, I must admit that the world is a much poorer place for that oversight. It is too easy to simply focus on the sexuality which permeates every aspect of these novels. Alas, too many people do just that. True, sexuality lies at the heart of these books. But there is so much more than that. These storylines are filled with a myriad of nuances and nothing is ever black or white. Those who found that there was too much sex in the first trilogy will be happy to know that things are a bit toned down in Kushiel's Scion. Probably not because the author felt that this was needed, but because Imriel has a hard time coming to terms with his own sexuality. As I mentioned, the abuse the boy suffered at the hands of the Mahrkagir of Drujan and his court left Imriel unwilling to embrace that part of himself and this shapes the narrative in various ways as he grows toward adulthood.
I knew from the start that I would miss the first person narrative of Phèdre nó Delaunay. As a deeply flawed character, her strengths and weaknesses made her genuine and her perspective, that of an older woman relating the tale of her past, misled readers on several occasions by playing with their expectations. I liked how Phèdre's strenghts often became her weaknesses and vice versa. Structurally speaking, Imriel de la Courcel's point of view follows the same path. It's unclear exactly how old the narrator is, but the Imriel relating the story of his life in this new series definitely isn't a young man anymore. Female authors/readers often complain that male authors have a hard time writing authentic girls/women. That may be true, yet the same goes for a lot of female authors, especially when they try to portray younger boys, teenagers, or young adults. I've been reading SFF novels for over thirty years and the only one who has managed to do it right was Robin Hobb in Assassin's Apprentice. I recognized myself in so many scenes as I watched young Fitz grow up that it blew my mind. Jacqueline Carey managed to do the same with Imriel in this book. Sexuality aside, once again reading about the prince's teenage years brought me back to my own adolescence, time and time again. As has become the author's wont, the supporting cast is comprised of a variety of three-dimensional and genuine men and women. Most of them, in their own way, through their interactions with Imriel, add even more layers to an already complicated plot. Beyond Phèdre, Joscelin and Imriel, Kushiel's Scion would never have been such an amazing read without the presence of such characters as Queen Ysandre, Drustan mab Necthana, Ti-Philippe, Master Piero, Lucius Tadius, Claudia Fulvia, Canis, and many more. As a confused and lonely teenager, Imriel's relationships with Sidonie and Alais de la Courcel, especially the particular bond he shares with the younger princess, the one with his traveling companion Gilot, as well as his deep and unexpected friendship with Eamonn mac Grainne, evelate the characterization to yet another level. As was the case with the first trilogy, à la Mark Lawrence, Robin Hobb, and L. E. Modessit, jr., Jacqueline Carey refuses to follow the path of least resistance and her characters remain true to themselves till the very end. For good or ill, it goes without saying.
Weighing in at more than 900 pages, Kushiel's Scion is another doorstopper of a book. The first third focusing on Imriel's growing pains does slow down the rhythm and the pace is not as fluid as what the previous Kushiel installments accustomed us to. And yet, Carey always had a knack for coming up with plot twists that suck you in and won't let go and she has quite a few surprises up her sleeve. Hence, even though certain portions are more slow-moving, this one is another sophisticated and multilayered read full of wonder and sensuality. Written on an scale that is not as epic as that of its predecessors, the author nonetheless did it again with an elegance rarely seen in the genre. Edgy and sexy, like the Kushiel novels that came before, this new one is complex, intriguing, and ultimately rewarding.
Kushiel's Avatar was a memorable conclusion to a phenomenal fantasy series. With such a perfect finale, Jacqueline Carey set the bar incredibly high for what came next. As the first volume in a brand new trilogy, Kushiel's Scion couldn't live up to such high expectations. And yet, with all the groundwork laid out within its pages, the novel sets the stage for what should be another amazing and convoluted series.