The Big Idea: Jacqueline Carey

Jacqueline Carey has a healthy respect for history — you have to know what you’re working with in order to change it so wildly, as she does in so many of her book. But as she learned in writing Naamah’s Blessing, her latest novel set in the world of her wildly popular Kushiel books, changing history doesn’t necessarily get easier the more you do it; indeed quite the opposite.


I rewrite history… a lot.  Over the course of the six books of the Kushiel’s Legacy series, I created a chronology in which the Roman Empire fell centuries before its time, the British Isles were isolated by a supernatural entity, and vast tracts of Germany and surrounding territories were subjected to an extended Dark Ages just so I could have my barbarian tribes.  I developed a mythos in which the majority of Jews acknowledged Yeshua ben Yosef (a.k.a. Jesus Christ) as the mashiach (a.k.a. the messiah), and Christianity as we know it never took root; a mythos in which a wandering deity in the fertile Dionysian tradition was born of the mingled blood of Yeshua and the tears of Mary of Magdala, nurtured in the womb of the earth.Elua; Blessed Elua.  I gave him seven fallen angels for Companions, and sent him to Terre d’Ange (a.k.a. France) to found a realm of their descendants, based on the sacred precept, “Love as thou wilt.”

Oh, and I invented Pictish culture based on nothing but a list of kings’ names and a handful of line drawings, and I discovered the lost Ark of the Covenant in Ethiopia, and I resurrected Carthage.  So when I decided at the beginning of the Naamah trilogy, which is set in the same milieu, that I’d visit the New World in the final volume, Naamah’s Blessing, and undo the Spanish conquest, it didn’t seem like a Big Idea.  I didn’t expect it to be terribly challenging.

I was wrong.

Rolling back the conquistadores wasn’t the hard part.  I’d read Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel as part of my general background research.  I took guns out of the equation early in the trilogy and I had a plan to deal with germs, which were totally the deadliest weapon of the three.  I figured steel and horses alone weren’t enough of an advantage for total conquest.  So, yay!  That left me free to explore Pre-Columbian culture in Central and South America in a more sympathetic light…

…which brought me bang up against human sacrifice.

Although my divinely amorous D’Angelines are the heroes of the books, throughout the series, I’ve strived to give equal weight to all the belief systems I addressed.  Core truths might be subject to reinterpretation, but not outright invalidation.  This was a tough one.  I could temper it, but I couldn’t deny or ignore it.  I tried looking at how other contemporary writers had handled the issue.  I even watched Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto.  It didn’t help.  Especially not Apocalypto.

As I’ve written elsewhere, I finally found my psychological access point in the rich Aztec tradition of poetry, and particularly in imagery equating the ephemeral nature of human existence with the poignancy of the cut flower.  It allowed me to look past my visceral reactions and see an awful and terrible beauty in the relentless strictures of a demanding faith.  And in the end, I was able to incorporate it in a manner that gave the book’s denouement greater resonance.

It turned out to be a Big Idea after all.


14 Comments on “The Big Idea: Jacqueline Carey”

  1. You know Jacqueline Carey? You are even more adorable to me now, favorite heterosexual man.

  2. I wouldn’t say I know her, personally. I’ve met her a couple of times and she seems quite nice, however. And Krissy is a big fan of her books.

  3. I literally just emailed my friend this link, with this added statement: I saw this blog post by my favorite sci-fi writer and was like “Whoa. He reads Jacqueline Carey? I really do love this man!!” LOL

  4. I already knew Krissy has good taste…after all, she married you. That being said, I love Jacqueline Carey’s work and I am glad you gave us her big idea.

  5. Now I want to liveblog with Krissy and discuss the Kushiel series with her. Its delicious softcore stuff.

  6. In a “sisterly” fashion, to be clear. I’m sure you have enough weirdos in your life… :)

  7. Squee! Jacqueline Carey! I’m such a ridiculous fangirl, if I ever met the woman I have no doubt I would embarrass myself in some horrible debacle of social weirdness.

    This latest book sounds fab. Off to link to this…

  8. Ahem. As if using “fab” in a non-ironic sense was not already embarrassing enough.

  9. Yeah cultural relativism only goes so far, some shit is just wrong and no “but it’s my culture” crap makes it right.

    I think the trick is not to pretend that everything is relative but to admit that each culture has an element of “shit that is just wrong” in it

    I remember reading an account set during the British Empire, occupation of India where a British governor got involved in the practice of Sate, burning widows alive after their husbands death (voluntary sometimes, often not)

    The British governor outlawed it, and was visited by a delegation of locals who explained what an important part of traditional Indian cultural beliefs Sate was

    The Governor responded “My culture also has certain sacrfed beliefs, one of which is we hang murdering bastards who kill women” or something along those lines…

    Good for hm.
    Not that the British have not burned their share in the past mind you…

  10. This post was fun for me to read, because I had pounced on this book the second it came out (having read the 8 previous books in this world), and this gave me layers and context that I might have otherwise missed.

    I really hope Carey isn’t done playing in this amazing world (and I really wish someone would publish a reference guide to that world, complete with the real history and many more details as to where/how Carey deviated from it)….

    In the meantime, I’m looking forward to “Saints Astray” with almost as much anticipation as I did “Naamah’s Blessing.”

  11. I’ll be picking this book up at the library as I’ve picked up all the previous ones. I must say that this trilogy has been less appealing to me than the previous two – it seems like Moirin, the protagonist, is getting shuttled from one divine mishap to another; whereas the first trilogy in particular (and to a lesser extent the second one) had a defining relationship at the core of it – that of Phédre and Melisande in the first one, and Imriel and Melisande in the second. Moirin seems more like a holy odd-jobs woman, there’s no defining core to the trilogy. A trilogy entirely concerned with Terre-d’Ange and the Mexica would be a good read, as would a trilogy entirely concerned with East Asia; but by having Moirin traipse back and forth across Eurasia and beyond it rather dilutes the effect.

    With that said, I adore Aztec mythology and history, and despite my misgivings I enjoy this series, so I’m sure I’ll enjoy this one.

  12. @ Fletcher #11: keep in mind that the point of Moirin as a character is that she’s reconciling having rather more divine fingers in her personal pie than she expected. The nature of Phèdre’s double dose of divine commitment was inherently about relationships, as the attributes of both Companions were about means of interaction with other individuals (which was not the case with all of the Companions). Only one of the three (if you count Anael) divinities Moirin answers to is in that category, and the primary one isn’t about relating to other humans so much as it is relating to nature. And it gives her a guiding spark, but no clue of what she’s being guided to, so obviously much wandering will ensue.

    I see that as the core of this trilogy — Moirin reconciling these very different imperatives, as the agent of an unlikely collaboration between divine members of different systems to work for goals that are opaque to her but desirable for long-term improvement in the lot of a large number of people (e.g., the elimination of cannon in the first book, some social redresses in the second) — and thus it doesn’t seem odd to me that she’s being dispatched all over the place and interacting with other belief systems. There was a bit of this with Phèdre, too, most notably in the third book; this trilogy just makes that more of a focus. It’s clear from the outset that Moirin was selected and even engendered with the intention that she be a divine agent of change, so her being, as you put it, a holy odd-jobs woman doesn’t seem odd to me. You could say the whole theme is the not unusual quest of self-discovery, although it’s not the cliched hidden heritage (since her heritage is clearly established) but the purpose behind that heritage.

  13. Sounds like enough ‘big ideas’ for seven different books. Or one dish of ‘Hungarian Goulash’.

  14. Dana- that’s because it was. This is the ninth book in the series.

    Anyway, Count me in for a Kushiel discussion with Krissy! (assuming she’d say yes) Scalzi, make it so number 1

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