With "Naamah's Curse," Jaqueline Carey explores sex and religion in alternate history

Naamah's Curse is the eighth novel in Jaqueline Carey's alternate medieval history, and it's a standout. Set 200 years after the Kushiel novels, it's about a mixed-race witch named Moirin, questing to rescue her boyfriend from an evil queen.

One of Carey's gifts as a writer is that she's able to infuse breezy summer reading fare with an interesting thought experiment. In this novel, which is the immediate sequel to Naamah's Kiss, we follow Moirin across Asia in the wake of her triumphant role in a battle between the Ch'in and the Tatars. Having rescued a dragon, saved a princess, and helped raise her sexy stick-fighting boyfriend Bao from the dead, she just wants to return home to Alba and see her mother. Unfortunately, Bao has decided that he wants to find the Tatar warlord who fathered him by raping his mother.

Because Moirin and Bao now share a life spark - side-effect of the whole resurrection thing - it's fairly easy for Moirin to track him. Except there's one thing she hasn't bargained on. While she's questing across Tatar lands and learning to drink yak butter tea, Bao is getting in touch with his roots by joining his father's tribe and marrying the daughter of the Tatar leader, the Great Khan himself. And that's when things get interesting. Though Moirin manages to win back Bao's hand by besting every man in the Tatar summer games with her archery skills, the Great Khan has her kidnapped and sent to live among the Vralians (Russians). And he tricks Bao into thinking that he's sent Moirin into Bhodistan (India).

At this point, the novel becomes an intriguing saga about Moirin's faith in love and sexuality, and how it clashes with the pleasure-denying faiths of the Vralians.

It turns out that one of the great Patriarchs of the Vralians has been dying to show the power of his ultra-orthodox Yeshuite church - which is a riff on Catholicism, or maybe Eastern Orthodox. Because Moirin is mixed blood D'Angeline and Druid, she's the perfect blend of every kind of blasphemy. If only he can convert her, the Patriarch thinks, he will have proven that the Vralian church is all-powerful. To escape the Patriarch's clutches and rescue Bao, Moirin must endure the psychological horror of "confession," worse in many ways than her final journey across frozen mountains to reach Bhodistan.

There are some clumsy moments when Moirin arrives in Bhodistan to free Bao from the clutches of the evil "Spider Queen." She discovers a land whose beliefs she finds beautiful, but also disturbing: One of Carey's main concerns in this latter half of the novel is the caste system, especially the plight of untouchables. You'll adore the fight between Moirin and the Spider Queen, but our heroine's quest to raise up the untouchables has a weird, trivializing "ding dong the wicked caste system is dead" feeling to it.

These problems aside, Carey has managed to write a gripping novel whose central question - when is love a curse? - is answered in ways both subtle and meaningful. At every step, Moirin tries to use "Naamah's gift," love and sex, to fight oppression. But sometimes, love is not the positive force she hopes it will be. Bring this book with you on vacation to rip through in a fun frenzy, but don't be surprised if you're thinking about it for days afterward.

Get Naamah's Curse via Hachette Book Group