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The Duke in His Castle
Vera Nazarian
Norilana Books, 124 pages
The Duke in his Castle
Vera Nazarian
Leaving the U.S.S.R. as a refugee at the age of 8, Vera Nazarian settled in the United States in 1976, a month before her 10th birthday. In 1988 she received her B.A. from Pomona College in Claremont, CA, (double-major in English and Psychology) and went on to work for 10 years in the high tech industry. Holding down a full-time tech job by day, she would write science fiction and fantasy at night. She had sold her first short story at the age of 17 to the second volume of Marion Zimmer Bradley's anthology series Sword and Sorceress. Since then she has published numerous works of short fiction in anthologies and magazines, and has seen her work translated into French, German, Spanish, Italian, Dutch, Czech, Hebrew, and Hungarian.

Her debut novel Dreams of the Compass Rose (Wildside Press) made the 2002 Nebula Awards Preliminary Ballot for Best Novel, while her second novel, an epic fantasy about a world without color, Lords of Rainbow was published in March 2003. Both novels were nominated for the Spectrum Awards. Her novellas The Clock King and the Queen of the Hourglass (PS Publishing, 2005), and The Duke in His Castle (2008), and short story collection Salt of the Air (fall 2006) are among her other works. An additional volume of Compass Rose stories is stated to be "in the works"" and tentatively titled Gods of the Compass Rose. She is also the publisher of Norilana books.

Author's Website
Author Biography
EXCERPTS: 1, 2, see also for other works
Reviews of The Duke in his Castle 1, 2, 3, 4
Reviews of Tales of the Compass Rose 1, 2, 3, 4

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Georges T. Dodds

[In my best Peter Finch voice] It's high time modern fantasy gets over it slavish adulation of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings -- it's been 54 years people! and, frankly, I'm not going to take any more of this financially successful but artistically vapid cloning of the LOTR-paradigm [end voice]. Some, admittedly, have taken fantasy in interesting new directions, but I must admit to looking more and more to pre-Tolkienian times for my fantasy reading. Admittedly I grew up in a time when authors like J.B. Cabell, Lord Dunsany, E.R.Eddison, H.R. Haggard, R.E. Howard, W. Morris, T. Mundy and C.A. Smith had been rediscovered in the fantasy boom of the late 1960s-early 1970s and were widely available in the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series, Newcastle Forgotten Fantasy series, and various other editions. As much as I might wish that any serious fantasy reader of today begin with the 'classics,' I realise that the vast majority don't. However, if they did, they might, like me, find much of current fantasy a tedious rehash of themes, with inferior prose. Now admittedly, fantasy does draw from a vast but limited number of mythologies, folklore and themes, so creating something truly never-done-before 'original' is nearly an impossible task. Obviously the best authors do more than change the names of places and characters, they recycle literary building materials, some hoary with age, and create something different and personal enough to fit the definition of 'original' -- inasmuch as this term can be applied to fantasy.

Of the authors I've reviewed here, the name of Christopher A. Zackey (see 1 and 2) comes to mind -- not because he's ever likely to (or should) become a household name. His works are self-published, virtually unknown, in a style which might be termed nouveau-Baum and which would likely turn off many modern readers; however, they stand out, in my mind, as interesting artefacts of one person's particular vision, not a mere carbon copy of what sells. A number of early modern fantasists (e.g. Morris, Dunsany, Eddison and Cabell -- and Hope Mirrlees to include a woman) were individuals of private means, who wrote to amuse friends or children, not to make a buck. Backed by a wide-ranging educations in mythology, folklore and 'the Classics,' these people were able to write whatever they damn well pleased and have it published, which while it didn't, in some cases, do enough to stifle some stylistic excesses, made for intelligent, sophisticated and more importantly, unique visions. Based on my reading of this novella and her novel Dreams of the Compass Rose, Vera Nazarian is one of the very few present-day fantasy writers, to which I might accord the accolade of having a compelling and unique vision.

Nazarian postulates a world where a powerful wizard-king has magically imprisoned the aristocracy in their mansions and castles to punish them for their attempt to overthrow him. However, legend has it that each aristocrat has been given a secret power, and if one of the score of them can discover and exploit all the others' powers, he/she can liberate the rest.

One such aristocrat is the learned, highly cultured, but apathetic Rossian, Duke of Violet, resident of an isolated Gormenghastish castle. Rossian is at a stage where attempting to escape the kings' binding is long-forgotten -- Rossian suffers from a profound ennui, the sort of protagonist one might expect in a fin-de-siècle French decadent novel (e.g. J.-K. Huysmans' des Esseintes, or Henry Cauvain's Maximilien Heller). He has settled into simply keeping time as the days go by. So when the brash, pushy, loud and oddly doll-faced Lady Izelle, presents herself as an envoy from the equally trapped White Duchess, Rossian quickly enters curmudgeon mode, and wants her gone, pronto! However, they both have something the other needs either emotionally or in terms of competency, and together they develop a synergistic whole.

As with Dreams of the Compass Rose, The Duke in His Castle uses a lush and evocative prose in combining decadence, fairy tales, high fantasy, mystery, and romance -- without reaching the vocabulary excesses of the likes of Clark Ashton Smith. The intelligent but barbed echanges between Rossian and Izelle are particularly evocative of his annoyance and her let's-get-things-done attitude. It's this sort of prose, when well done, which I associate with the best of fantasy.Also, the narrator's constant use of the present tense, gives one a sense of participating in the events, although at times, when this narration is used for past events, it becomes a little awkward.

Even though built on standard elements, the novella never seems derivative, or when one might begin to think so, it takes a radical turn into an unexpected avenue. There aren't altogether good or evil characters, but morally ambiguous ones who ultimately draw out the best in each other. In a certain way the character of Izelle is the test Rossian must pass to attain his full -- and undreamed of -- potential.

I would recommend The Duke in His Castle to new fantasy readers to give them a sense of the originality that is still possible in the post-Tolkien era, and to those sunken into fantasy-apathy as a way to break out, like Rossian from their prison.

Copyright © 2008 by Georges T. Dodds

Georges Dodds is a research scientist whose interests lie predominantly in both English and French pre-1950 imaginative fiction. Besides reviews and articles at SFSite and in fanzines such as Argentus, Pulpdom and WARP, he has published peer-reviewed articles in fields ranging from folklore to water resource management. He is the creator and co-curator of The Ape-Man, His Kith and Kin a website exploring thematic precursors of Tarzan of the Apes, as well as works having possibly served as Edgar Rice Burroughs' documentary sources. The close to 100 e-texts include a number of first time translations from the French by himself and others. Georges is also the creator and curator of a website dedicated to William Murray Graydon (1864-1946), a prolific American-born author of boys' adventures. The website houses biographical, and bibliographical materials, as well as a score of novels, and over 100 short stories.

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