An island, once capital of a world empire, speaks to a young woman in dream voices. Her exploration of its sepulchres unleashes great fantastic torrents of Story, stories of indestructible ships, cities remade every time a king sleeps, oases of worthless gold, quests to the ends of the earth, nights illumined by a thousand moons, lords ensorcelled by Illusion, the making of gods and the unmaking of a conqueror dwarfing Genghiz Khan...
Like her acknowledged creative model, Tanith Lee (contemporary fantasy's greatest Gothic exoticist), Vera Nazarian is a fervent prose poet; her first novel, Dreams of the Compass Rose, is a feast of baroque colour and eloquence echoing and rivalling Lee's remarkable arabesque cycle, the five-volume Tales of the Flat Earth. As much as Lee, Nazarian employs a style simultaneously of great historical distance and of utter emotional immediacy, so that her strange settings and stranger characterizations are also intimately authentic, fully felt. And the richness of Nazarian's poetic diction--the pyrotechnics of feeling that so conspicuously explodes from her page--has an invigoratingly unconventional foundation. Because her personal background (Armenian/Russian) is Other than the Western experience that nourishes most American fantasy, her ornate cadences incorporate a (for that genre) wholly unaccustomed way of telling the world. Her fantastic exoticism can be read as an alternative tradition of realism, the essence of human existence seen through a provocatively contrary lens. Much like the fantasies of Milorad Pavic and Orhan Pamuk, Dreams is Different on many levels, from its basic wording up. It is charismatically unusual, and its vivid peculiarity of style should be reckoned the first major accomplishment of Vera Nazarian.
And then there is her second claim to originality, the extraordinary cyclical narrative arrangement of Dreams. The milieu of the Compass Rose--a barbaric, magical realm of vast desiccating deserts, furious oceans, and the human settlements, caravans, and ships that dot these elemental wastes, the geographic expressions of a single goddess's awesome nature--is governed by the symbolism of its titular artefact. At the alleged centre of the world, the court of the mad taqavor or universal emperor Cireive, a compass rose is fashioned to help the great ruler understand, and thus delineate, his dominions. The points of the compass indicate not simply the customary two-dimensional directions of a map, but elements of space and time as well, three- and four-dimensional topologies that bewilder the taqavor and correspondingly structure the text that relates his downfall. His story, and that of his son and successor, is fragmented, and cunningly interleaved with scenes from much later in history, when Cireive's empire is dust and the principles of his power, Illusion and Ego, are finally discredited in a series of exemplary tales featuring the triumph of humanity and balance. Dreams moves in an ironic temporal circle, placing effect before cause, hypothesis before premise, action before reflection, illustrating at once the Ignorance by which evil thrives and the absolute necessity of piecing the chaos of human affairs into a moral whole. With perverse yet inevitable logic, victims outlive victors, slaves master their captors, rogues become paladins of order, and the blind see at last; the circle turns, enlightening the initially bewildered reader, and with the reader an entire world. It's quite a feat, this achronological heaping up of consequences, didacticism by indirection; Dreams may well become a landmark in the architectonics of the fantastic.
So: despite some overwritten passages and a periodic reliance on stock gambits of plotting, Dreams of the Compass Rose is quite a book, a fierce and stylish statement of innovative purpose in a genre that needs shaking up. Fortunately, with Vera Nazarian joining the reforming crusade of such fantasists as China Miéville, Jeff VanderMeer, Kelly Link, and Jeffrey Ford, an earthquake seems imminent...
(Dreams of the Compass Rose is published by Wildside Press)
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© Nick Gevers 27 July 2002