Vera Nazarian, The Duke in His Castle (Norilana Books, 2008)
For years, I had nibbled at Nazarian's work, first through various Sword and Sorceress anthologies and finally through Salt of the Air last summer. I hadn't ever found the opportunity to sit down to a fuller feast -- until, that is, The Duke in His Castle fell into my grasping hands.
The Duke in His Castle is philosophy couched in a fairy tale couched in a murder mystery tinged with children's games. It's a kaleidoscope of thought and emotion, the howling winds of despair, and the sometimes soft, sometimes fierce flow of life. Not only is it quickly absorbing and a quick read, but it sits up and begs for repeat visits.
Witness: all the ducal subjects of an unnamed realm are cursed to be locked forever in their castles. Unless, perhaps, one of them discovers the secret powers of all the others -- if such secret powers actually exist, of course. The curse has persisted for generations upon generations and the story opens with one of the descendant's reflecting morbidly upon such atrophied life as has been bequeathed to him. Cue distraction: a capering harlequin-woman with a box full of bones prods him irritatedly from his soul-killing contemplations. Shocking moments of enormity ensue in a mad dash through estranged meals, hide-and-go-seek, the engendering of life and more: all made complete only by the final revelation.
On par with the story's convolutions is Nazarian's skill in weaving words into many-hued visions. The language in which she clothes her writing is her usual mixture of beauty and vagueness, lush visuals mixed with wavering heat visions of philosophy. At times, her ideas come across with crystal clarity while at others her intended meanings are actually obfuscated by the words chosen. One thing she never fails at describing, however, are moments of true magic; these portions of the story are depicted in such a way as to inspire the imagination and one's sense of awe.
In her author's note to the novella, Nazarian notes about the work that "[a]s with any obsession, you must first understand it before you can let go." This sentiment not only applies to the writing of this story, but the reading as well -- one thing I regret about reading this novella prior to publication is that I don't yet have a community to dissect it with! The ideas Nazarian raises in this story, "more layered than an onion" as she herself comments, beg for discussion at conventions, in coffee shops, over the Internet.
Of course, one needn't discuss it to enjoy the story. As with the best fairy tales, the plot is straightforward enough to enjoy as an entertaining distraction while also being deep enough to provide for multiple philosophical deconstructions. In the end, if you like literary fairy tales, particularly Hans Christian Andersen, I certainly recommend giving The Duke in His Castle a try.
[Deborah J. Brannon]