Moirin Mac Fainche is half D'Angelline and half Maghuin Donn, the people of Alba who worship the Bear- Goddess. Following an adventure that took her to the fabled land of Ch'in, Moirin has fallen in love with Bao, the half Ch'in, half Tatar boy who was both the student and servant of her friend and mentor, Master Lo. At first being antagonistic towards each other, they eventually became lovers. Unfortunately, Bao died in the course of their adventures in Ch'in, and Master Lo sacrificed his own life to bring Bao back from the grave. The same act split Moirin's diadh-anam, or gift from the bear goddess, in half. Half now resides in Bao, tying them together.
Bao, however, wasn't able to handle being tied to Moirin so closely, and left her to try and take in what happened to him. He promised to return to her, but now, it has been months and he hasn't returned. Moirin can feel him through the magic they share, and she feels it is time to go after him. She is also pushed into it by the Princess of Ch'in, who feels that they have laid around sporting with each other long enough. But Moirin doesn't take any soldiers with her, she decides to set off in search of Bao all by herself alone, trusting in her woods lore to get her through the long, cold winter.
The only aid she does accept is a special talisman, a necklace from the Ch'in Emperor. This enables her to go anywhere in the Ch'in empire and gain free lodgings, food, and whatever else she needs. The further she travels, though, the more she realizes that Bao has left the Ch'in Empire, and has travelled to Tatar lands. She also finds the town where Bao was born, along with the man who was married to his mother, and his mother and half-sister as well. She finds that Bao passed through, although the man who raised him rejected the stories he told as mere tall tales. But Moirin not only confirms Bao's tale, she tells it directly to not only his mother and sister, but the woman who owns the embroidery studio in which they work.
Most of them recognize her already. She is the Emperor's Green-eyed witch, who saved the Empire. But Moirin is grateful for them telling her where Bao has gone, and gives them each a jade bangle, and because his mother's husband is a drunk and might sell the bangles for money for drink, she tells him she has placed a curse on the bangles. If he sells them to drink, he will be cursed. Otherwise, his family will be happy and prosperous. The man agrees and seems to have gotten out of his drunken funk.
Meanwhile, Moirin goes back to following Bao, and follows him out of the Borders of Ch'in and into Tatar lands. But the cold of the coming winter is like nothing she has felt before, and although she tries to avoid the Tatar people, who she has been warned are savage and warlike, she stumbles into one of their villages in the midst of a snowstorm, and instead of being killed, they take her in and give her hospitality. There, she finds an older woman who knows the scholarly language of Ch'in who was once an imperial daughter, married to a warlord of the Tatars to bring peace. Through her, Moirin tells her tale, and helps birth a baby from the woman who has taken her in (the elderly lady being her grandmother-in-law). By the time spring arrives and the Tatars are ready to leave to meet with the rest of their people, Moirin has become family, and her hostess gifts her with a blue silk scarf which makes her an honorary Tatar.
A few weeks later, they enter the main Tatar camp. Moirin meets with Bao, who looks good, even after all their time apart, and he is angry with her for coming after him... until he finds out that she has come after him alone. He assumed she was being accompanied by a group of Ch'in warriors to keep her safe. But when she reveals she came alone, he warms up to her and they end up falling into bed for a long reunion. It's only after they surface from the afterglow that Bao reveals he has found the Tatar who fathered him, and he is one of the Highest Ranking Warlords in the Tatar Horde. Bao has found a measure of acceptance in the Tatar Horde. Even, a wife.
Before Moirin can get too angry at him, he tells her he really had no choice. His wife is the daughter of the Tatar Khan, and to turn down her hand in marriage would have been a deadly insult and gotten him killed. However, even though he is married, he truly does want to be with Moirin. But dissolving his marriage is all but impossible- unless they can win one of the games at the contest the Khan is throwing. Bao has no chance on his own- he is good at martial arts, but not the ones that the Tatars favor. Only Moirin, with her ability to fire a bow, has a chance of winning one of the contests- and the prize is a favor from the Khan. A favor he must grant, no matter what.
Moirin also has a confrontation with the Khan and his daughter. The Khan tries to buy her off, but Moirin isn't having it. On the other hand, the Khan's daughter wants to kill her- but Moirin talks to her and shares her own experiences of loving someone much more than they loved her, and tells the Khan's daughter of how to go on afterwards. This doesn't necessarily make them friends, but they are no longer enemies.
At the contest, Moirin's bow is examined by the Tatars, and they conclude it is not in any way ensorcelled or magicked. By using her skill, she advances to the finals, and wins the contest. After she wins, there is much rejoicing. The group of Tatars who brought her to the camp takes her off for a big celebration, everyone gets drunk, and passes out. But the Khan sends for her to see her. Thinking that she will finally be able to ask for him to release Bao, she goes to meet him. But the Khan has other plans in mind for Moirin.
First, he accuses her of using her magical talent to win the contest, then has her imprisoned in chains that cut off her access to her magical abilities and magical talent. When she can no longer escape, he sells her to a group of Vralians who have been looking for just such a one as she. Moirin is desperate to escape, but they are too good at watching her, and the chains stop her from moving and being able to do any magic. She hopes that Bao will rescue her, but the Khan told her before she is dragged off that he is going to tell Bao she left, and in another direction, so she is very upset on that score.
She is taken to a small town in Vralia run by the Yeshuites, who, it seems, have undergone a schism in their religion. One Yeshuite converted the whole of Vralia to his religion by helping the Ruler of Vralia win an important battle. But before he died, he had a change of heart about his views on D'Angellines and the nature of Yeshuite worship, saying that Yeshua was love, and that essentially, the D'Angellines were not so wrong about the nature of religion. He wrote a book about his new conclusions that sent a shockwave through the Vralian Church. One man, Pyotr Rostov, the Patriarch of this small community, means to heal that schism by showing that the original Vralian faith is the true and correct one- by converting Moirin to the Yeshuite faith.
Of course, to truly convert her, he must hear her true confession first, which involves asking her about her life and history, with special emphasis on the debased sex that he is sure she enjoyed. The way he questions her about it, and takes interest in the parts of her story that deal with sex, sickens Moirin and casts a pall on her memories of those times, ruining any happiness that those memories might invoke.
But he is not alone in his efforts at conversion. There is his sister, who was seduced by a Yeshuite when she was just a girl and got pregnant by him. Because of that, she is scorned and her son, Aleksei, must take part in this attempt to convert Moirin or be considered to be tainted by his parentage. Moirin, knowing his heritage as a D'Angelline, thinks she can seduce him into helping her, but he is so gun-shy around women, that she has to be very circumspect in her seduction or she will frighten him away.
She spends many months in the village of the Vralians, never being convinced by their efforts to exhort her to change her religion. She pretends that they have started to reach her, because she is told that if she refuses their efforts for too long, that they will take her out and stone her to death. Not wanting to die, she asks her goddess what will happen if she converts, and sees the death of her diadh-anam, which so distresses her that she cries out in the midst of the service she is dragged to. She is immediately sent back to her cell.
Soon after, The Patriarch questions her about her time with Jeanne, the Queen of Terre D'Ange, then tells her that the Queen has died in childbirth, which sends Moirin into a deep, deep depression. She blames herself for Jeanne's death, for the Queen died in childbirth, the thing she was most afraid of, and Moirin feels she should have been there to help her through it. Aleksei, who comes in to read from the book of Yeshua to her, is the one who finally brings her out of her funk, and this forges a deeper connection between the two of them. She confesses to Alexei how she sees him- as a beautiful bird who should be freed to fly, but who is penned up in a cage too small for him- and the cage is his Uncle's views of religion.
Moirin decides to deceive the Patriarch into thinking she has come around to his way of thinking, but in reality, she is lying to him. But he believes her because she tells him what he wants to hear. After mortification of her body, she eventually agrees to join the Yeshuite faith. The Patriarch is overjoyed. He has won against the Damned D'Angllines, and he plans a big celebration around his victory, inviting a local lord to come and witness. However, before he will take off the chains binding her and her powers, he wishes her to swear to follow Yeshua forever, and this she will not do, because it will kill her diadh-anam. Balked and furious, he throws her back into her prison and makes plans to stone her in the morning. That night, Aleksei comes at the behest of his mother to free her. He unlocks her chains and takes her north.
She insists on taking the silver chains with them, and having a blacksmith melt down the chains in front of them. There are three blacksmiths in town. One merely makes nails and horseshoes. The second asks far too many questions, while the third does it for them. They take the money gained from the sale of the chains and hide out in town for a while, buying the items that Moirin will need to travel back to Bao. In the meantime, she keeps her promise and becomes his lover, initiating him into the mysteries of Naamah. It has a profound change on him, making him more comfortable in his skin, and even more beautiful.
Alexei falls in love with her and wants her to stay with him. She does love him, but not in that way, and knows that they must part. Seeking to buy a bow, she finds one of the Tatars she beat in the contest. He holds no grudge against her and sells her his wife's bow, then has a mini-contest for her to prove her skills were no fluke. He beats her in this new contest, but shoots well enough with the unfamiliar bow that he knows she wasn't cheating. In return, she tells him what really happened after the contest, which makes him angry at the Khan. As the Khan is elected by the acclaim of the tribes, once her story gets around, he won't be the Khan any more.
But soon after their return to town, the Patriarch returns, having found them thanks to the aid of the second blacksmith. He wants to imprison Moirin again and stone her, but the Tatars return to aid her. She shoots the Patriarch with her new bow, not killing him, and Aleksei adds to the injury when he tells the Patriarch that he is leaving to join the Schismatics- he no longer believes that the Patriarch is correct in his views about religion. The Tatars take them out of town, and Aleksei parts from them and Moirin. It is a sad parting, but she cannot avoid her destiny to join him.
The Tatars take her back to the same camp where Khan is, and Moirin arranges a meeting with the Khan's daughter. His daughter is surprised at what her father has done, and returns to Moirin her pack, which was left behind in the Tatar camp. But she also has some hard news for Moirin. Bao was led to believe that Moirin had been stolen by the Assassin King, a man who lives far to the south, near Bhodistan. He is famous, with a troop of assassins, and as a collector of beautiful things, women included. His companion is a woman known as the Spider Queen; one just as evil and grasping as he.
Moirin's only hope is to seek out a woman known as the Rat Queen, Ruler of Bhaktipur, the only person who has managed to take on the Assassin King and live. Bao, believing she had been taken there, went charging off to rescue her, but she can feel his part of the diadh-anam, and it feels strange- heavy and somehow stale. It should quicken the closer she gets to him, but that is not the case. As Moirin travels through the depths of the mountains, she must somehow find Bao, take out the threat of the assassins, and reunite with the man she loves. But Bao believes her dead- can she get through to him when he has given up all hope of ever seeing her alive again?
Wow. Just Wow. This book really hit the heights and plumbed the depths for me, from Moirin's original reunion with Bao to their separation, and the literal torture she went through at the hands of the Yeshuites- not just the physical torture of scrubbing their sanctuary with a toothbrush (although it's not described as such, that's the mental image I had of it) on her hands and knees for weeks, if not months on end, every day, but the mental torture of her endless questioning at the hands of a man who was turned on by what she was relating, even as he condemned her for it. It was painful to read, and experiencing the way Moirin's memories were soiled by her questioning at the hands of the Patriarch was also hard to read.
But what really dragged me down the most was the news that Jeanne, the Queen of Terre D'Ange was dead. Now, there have certainly been books in this series with greater scenes of physical torture- certainly, none of this can hold a candle to what the Markaghir did to Phédre in Kushiel's Avatar, at least in the physical sense- even Phédre had met her match when it came to pain at that point. But that was merely physical torture, and Phédre heals easily and well from Physical torture and torment. The scenes of torture in this book were much more mental than physical, and Moirin is merely human- no mark from Kushiel is going to save her from the hurt she feels, or the way the Patriarch's questions sully the happiness she takes in her memories. It's almost like the destruction of her innocence, in a way, and that made it doubly hateful and hurtful to read.
I had hoped that the Patriarch was lying to her about what happened to Jeanne just to mess with Moirin's head. It was something that gave me comfort to think of, but that hope was dashed later on in the book when Moirin has an encounter with Jeanne's spirit. It made me a bit depressed again, but Moirin finds comfort in the truth that Jeanne's daughter lives, and that Moirin will be able to pass on a message of how much Jeanne loves her daughter from beyond the grave.
But then there are moments and scenes that make up for some of what Moirin suffers. I particularly liked her scenes with Alexei after he frees her, then flees to Riva. Moirin makes good on her promises to initiate him into the love and sensuality that is his heritage, and Alexei is freed of the idea that sex and love are bad and will send him to Hell. In fact, during the confrontation between him and his uncle, it seems that Aleksei's leaving hurts his uncle more than Moirin's arrow does.
I also liked the confrontation with The Spider Queen, who is definitely a villain, but at the same time has good reasons for being the way she is. There are hints there that could have made her story very much more interesting and better, but a lot of her scenes sort of devolve into her being something of a literal black widow, with the implication that she made the Assassin King a much worse villain than he would otherwise have been.
In fact, something does seem off about Moirin in this volume. Something almost seems to have been lost. Moirin has gone from a wild girl to something more tame and less interesting. It's as if Carey completely forgot about her backstory except for her diadh-anam, and the fact that her people worship a bear goddess. Moirin hardly ever camps in the wild, seems to prefer staying in Inns, and the characters in the second half of the story almost seem like caricatures instead of the kind of interesting, nuanced characters that Carey is famous for.
I also found Bao a less interesting character, too. Essentially, he's lost all strength of character and by the second half of the book has become whiney emo boy. In the first book he was all about strength of character but as soon as he thinks Moirin is dead, he becomes a drug addict and loses all hope- throwing himself into a pointless affair with another woman, and completely undercutting the character he supposedly portrayed thus far. Even the sex between the characters seems disappointingly vanilla. I got the feeling that all that was really holding them together was Moirin's diadh-anam- because they seemed to have no real chemistry otherwise.
Despite a rather disappointing second book, I'd still recommend this novel. It's in no way as good as the first two series that Jacqueline Carey has written, but I am willing to see where this novel leads. It promises a confrontation with Moirin's ex-lover Raphael de Mereliot. Recommended, but with a caution. I am hoping for better next time.