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review: dreams of the compass rose

Jason sepia


Dreams of the Compass Rose by Vera Nazarian (norilana) has had an interesting history, first coming out in hardcover in May 2002 from Wildside Press, then in a much more attractive trade paperback edition from Betancourt & Company in September 2004. Both of these were Print-on-Demand editions. Then it was announced that ibooks would be bringing out an offset trade paperback edition in April 2006, but then ibooks declared bankruptcy in February, about a month ago, and the book was orphaned. Prime Books has offered to reprint the book as an offset paperback, but until the financial matters with ibooks are settled, the novel is in publication limbo.

Be that as it may, I will still be reviewing the book here, because you can find it in its previous editions. The trade paperback POD goes for $17.95, which is really not a bad deal. And it's available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and many other online booksellers, as well as Wildside Press's website.

Dreams of the Compass Rose is a unique animal. Not quite a novel or a short story collection, though it takes elements of both. It's a mosaic novel, in the purist sense of the phrase. It's separated into fourteen chapters, or Dreams, each a self-contained tale, though characters that are introduced in an early Dream may appear at different points in their lives in later Dreams.

There are two main threads in this tapestry of a novel. The first thread is the story of Cireive, the taqavor of all the known lands, and of the brave nameless servant who deigns to tell him the truth of things. The second thread, which takes place hundreds or maybe thousands of years later, is the story of Nadir, a zen-like warrior and bodyguard of Egiras, the princess of a far-off land. We follow these characters throughout their lives, and discover new things about them each time. There are other tales as well, such as the man stealing Death's blade and being chased endlessly over landscapes and the rooftops of cities. And there is the insane androgynous sea captain nearly losing her life and her ship because of the protean powers of a spoiled aristocrat. There's also the story of the City of No-Sleep, which is Dream Seven in the book, and is probably my favorite. Here's the opening:
If you ever get lost, somewhere west of the Compass Rose, look for a city called No-Sleep.

The city is ancient yet young -- as each new day is young. And it's filled to the brim with miracles.

But the king here is old and mad like a mangy goat. They say his mind is broken; a fractured mirror, filled with disjointed, ever-changing images, which are his dreams. They reshape the fabric of the city every night.

The old madman spends his waking hours attempting to put together the shards of the mirror in order, and then sleeps erratically, during which time chaos returns to him. And the residents are known to keep themselves awake for as long as possible, so as to delay the inevitable changes, for they come only after sleep's oblivion.

You are welcome to visit this place if you like, to marvel at the wonders.

Only, whatever you do, don't fall asleep here. For the next time you wake, the city will have rearranged itself.
Pretty groovy, huh? This chapter, and this passage in particular, remind me of the entries in Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities, where he describes fantastical cities that never existed. Nazarian brings the City of No-Sleep to life in baroque and lush prose, and it is the treatment she gives to all of her settings and all of her characters throughout the novel. Her landscapes, whether they are storm-tossed seas or sun-drenched desert, are harsh and difficult environments, but they are treated with such loving detail that it is apparent the author loves them.

Every so often, though, the lushness descends to melodrama and purple prose, and these instances mostly occur at the beginning, such as when Queen Ailsan of Risei is captured by Taqavor Cireive and her son his executed in front of her. Plus, and this may be an authorial choice, I'm also bothered when every single character in the novel speaks at the same level of diction, from the loftiest of royalty to the impoverished servants who mop their floors. The language is an important part of the telling of this embroidered story, especially one where storytelling itself is highly valued, but it's unlikely that such a disparate group of people, from a range of different lands and cultures, as well as class distinctions, all speak in the same elevated mellifluous elocution.

Nazarian also tends to repeat facts that we as the reader should already know if we've been paying any kind of attention, as if she were anticipating that the lushness of the prose would make us forget that Nadir was "a tall silent man, with skin dark as the desert night." I've been reading about this character since the beginning of the book, and I do remember his ethnicity. It's not something that has to be pointed out to me every time he is reintroduced in the novel. A passing reference could be made to his dark skin, and that would be all the reminder I'd need.

Those complaints aside, the overall tale is a fascinating one, and Nazarian presents it well. With the importance that she places on storytelling within the book, I wish that she had explored a little more the ways that we construct our world and our experiences through narrative. She does some of this in Dream Ten: Gods and Fleas, and at the end of the entire book, where things are brought full circle, but still, I wish there had been more. Though this probably says more about my picky inclinations than Nazarian's choices as the author.

Dreams of the Compass Rose is an intriguing and intricate work of fiction, as if Nazarian has channeled Scheherazade, Calvino, and Lord Dunsany, all at the same time. It's certainly worth picking up if you're interested in a milieu where places have no names, cities spring forth like bouquets in the desert, gods and dreams walk the scorching sands in the South, ice floats like mirror shards upon the Northern sea, islands that do not exist are found in the East, death chases a thief on the rooftops of a Western city, immortal love spans time, and directions are intertwined into one road we all travel.

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Comments

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norilana
Mar. 27th, 2006 01:59 am (UTC)
Thanks for the awesome review, Jason! :-)
jlundberg
Mar. 27th, 2006 09:07 pm (UTC)
You're welcome, Vera. I tried to be fair about it, and hopefully not too cranky.
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