by Jacqueline Carey
Fantasy has served a lot of different religious traditions, from disguised Christianity like Narnia, to token Anglicism like in Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrel
to entirely invented theistic worlds, like Chalion. But one thing it hasn't done a lot of is forked alternate worlds based on "heretical Christianity", to use a term. Jacqueline Carey's series, Kushiel's Legacy
, does that in a richly imagined 11th century Europe which went different when Jesus had a son, Elua, by Mary Magdalene. This son was looked upon with disfavor by God and went traipsing around Europe with a band of rebel angels, mingling with mortals to produce a newly chosen people. These people settled in Terre d'Ange (basically, France), and became prosperous, religious, egalitarian, and libertine (the central precept of the religion centred around Elua is "love as thou wilt" -- basically, free love and few sexual taboos).
The first books of the series revolved around a courtesan Phedre, who was an anguisette of Kushiel -- think a religious masochist devoted to the angel of punishment; this book is concerned with her adopted son, Imriel de Courciel, a not too distant heir to the throne of Tere d'Ange, and his growth into marriage and first love. I mention those separately because, as the plot unfolds, the distinction matters. Unlike earlier books in the series, the writing feels less stylized period; this may be because it shifts viewpoint from an educated courtesan to a teenage boy, or may be that Carey has matured as a writer; I'll have to judge her later books to fairly judge. I somewhat miss the earlier style, though.
Without giving a simple plot summary, Imriel falls in love with someone despite being engaged to another for reason of statecraft. This is treated as potentially problematic, because the society and religion focuses on expressing love, but the religion isn't universal, and issues of national interest are exposed. It also does a wonderful job of presenting a view that love could be inculcated by circumstance, if there was a way to change the circumstances and push past existing love that would interfere.
Those who are familiar with Carey's proclivities won't be too surprised when the path Imriel travels is doomed to pain and complications. His marriage is doomed, his choices are doomed, his vengeance is bittersweet at best, and yet ... true love manages at least a win on points. All in all, I liked it; in many ways, this reminds me of some of Robin Hobb's work, but doesn't have the overwhelming angst that Hobbs puts in. It's in the intersection of alternate history, romance, and fantasy -- while there is magic in the world, it's a tool in the exploration of love and history. It's not, however, a "buy on sight" series; while I enjoyed it as I read it, I had no trouble putting it down to do other stuff, and it required a little bit of concentration to pick back up.