Vera Nazarian, Lords of Rainbow (Wildside Press, 2003)

It's a course that humanity has followed from the earliest origins of intelligent civilization: the things we don't understand about our world, we attribute to the divine. We witness the mysteries of nature and we personify the forces responsible for them; we must have angered a god of thunder to incur this storm, or infuriated a fertility goddess to warrant a drought. These are the basic starting points of world religions, which we expand upon by imposing on them a hierarchy of individuals who can properly communicate with the divinity in question. Bishops and cardinals, sheikhs, priests and nuns, clerics and shamans and tribal elders and medicine men — each of these is closer to the divine than the common man. They are conduits to the gods who hold answers to our questions about the world we inhabit. Moreover, we imbue them with a certain level of trust; we believe the things they tell us as if the gods had spoken the words themselves. But, if they so wish, these conduits could abuse the trust we give them in order to seize the power that comes with it, and to use it for their own gain.

Which brings us to Vera Nazarian's impressively elegant second novel, Lords Of Rainbow. In a story whispered to us by a nameless, perhaps malevolent narrator, Nazarian plunges us into what is literally a black-and-white world — a world bathed in silver hues, strangled by monochromatic scenery, in which color exists only in small pockets of light, and red and yellow, orange and violet, and all their contemporaries along the spectrum of the rainbow are misunderstood, revered as divinities, personified as gods. This is the world of Tronaelend-Lis, a city in which the power of its two farcical rulers is overshadowed, first by the power of the Light Guild, creators of colorful orbs which provide a link to a pantheon of deities that some citizens would prefer to forget or ignore, and then by the threat of the Assassin's Guild, killers who hide in the darkness and take the jet-black shadows as their color of choice.

The story follows Rahne, a warrior en route to the city who meets a dignitary on her way. Of course they meet again after an abrupt departure and romantic sparks fly between them. They are supported by dozens of peripheral characters who might be taken straight from the pages of a childhood fairytale: the ominous narrator; a king who remains in a state of suspended animation; the Regent and Regentrix, co-rulers of Tronaelend-Lis; and various citizens of the city as well as representatives of a number of the city's other guilds. I will describe no more of the plot for fear of diminishing the subtle thrill that arises from discovering the story's buried secrets, except to say that, as is also true of history's greatest faiths and traditions and religious orders, diverse and conflicting beliefs often give rise to violence.

You'll be glad I told you the set-up for the story, because you won't realize there actually was any kind of set-up until about ninety pages into the book. To be sure, Lords Of Rainbow is seductively readable, but the first part of the novel shifts from one character's story to another's with such rapidity and frequency, and with such dislocation, as to render this structure somewhat impotent to the point where it becomes a meandering mess, and it almost — almost — kills the story right from the start. It seems as if Nazarian, being so enamored with her world and her premise, altogether neglects to provide her story with a "hook." There is absolutely nothing in the first couple of chapters that is satisfying enough to draw the reader in and make us beg for more. This is due in large part to Nazarian's tendency to be vague in her descriptions of her world and of the rules that govern the relationships between her characters. So many questions arise in those early chapters — who is this person? what are they doing? why did they do that? — that the most important question of all falls by the wayside, namely — why should we care? Only when we reach the second part of the novel do we realize, with the power of hindsight, that Nazarian's world of Tronaelend-Lis has finally been established, albeit in a very passive way, and that her characters are at last engaged in an irreversible sequence of events: the story is now in motion. From here on out, everything is fine.

Actually, for the most part, it's better than fine. Nazarian's story veers from political drama to romance to pure fantasy to action with spectacular ease, and in addition to being unexpectedly heartfelt (Rahne is an engaging, action-oriented but emotionally insecure heroine) parts of the book are also unexpectedly erotic. Nazarian's characters are intriguing creations, each peppered with his or her own nuances and faults and virtues and values, all of them reaching a high level of believability. Most interestingly, though, her narrative premise also operates as a platform for an intriguing exchange of ideas. Of particular note is a foretold return of color and Rainbow to Tronaelend-Lis, portrayed in the novel as something analogous to the rapture or the Apocalypse. You can imagine, then, what reactions might arise when a new, colorful sun abruptly appears in Tronaelend-Lis, or when Rahne finds herself burdened with the responsibility that comes from a divine spiritual experience — a vision of the color violet.

Also interesting is the author's detailed organization of the faith and traditions that have risen in Tronaelend-Lis as a response to Rainbow, including the various postulates of those traditions — "Rainbow is Fulfillment," "Rainbow is Pain," "Rainbow is Illusion," "Rainbow is Unexpected Wonder" — and the hierarchical structure that surrounds them. Less successful; however, is her difficult, sometimes cringe-worthy mishandling of dialogue. As an example of how bad it can be, consider this: "I am Araht Vorn, Lord Prime, serving the Twilight One, whose name will not be pronounced until I face your Regent. My lord has sent me, his ambassador from the twilight place that is Qurth, to prepare you. I will say nothing more until I stand within these walls and face the one you call Regent. Therefore, open your gates, and let us enter!" Almost every character speaks this way — impersonal, officious, cold — but thankfully, their actions, their beliefs and their thoughts allow them to make up for the restrictions imposed on them by linguistic limitations.

More than that, such poor dialogue is overshadowed by far more impressive qualities. The book is leisurely paced; this may be the reason for the early vagueness I mentioned in those difficult first ninety pages, but there is also a certain pleasure to be found in the way plot points and mysteries unravel with apparent ease just when you least expect them to. This is a story told by a narrator who does not appear to be hurried by the constraints of time, but who still abides by the unbreakable rule of momentum, and who speaks elegantly, seductively, with a sing-song quality to their voice. Indeed, Nazarian's prose absolutely sparkles with uncountable poetic gems and sentences that force the reader to marvel at their own beauty:

They had spoken in uncomplicated ways, the locals, with nothing beyond the ordinary in the pale silver faces. Their clothing was drab; their skin had been turned dull and coarse in the gray sun-glare, and at the corners of their eyes it crinkled like rice paper. They were merely weather-beaten, like all the others who lived at the edges of the wilderness and were attuned to its natural rhythms. And unlike them she sensed other things in the air, brewing — subtle things that swept past their awareness. Things they would never know to tell her. ... There was a crispness, a sense of change in the wind, and it required a sixth sense to feel its encroach. ... a deepening of twilight.
For a tale set in a world without color, the sheer energetic vibrancy of the author's prose is a mighty achievement, and it makes Lords Of Rainbow the kind of book best read slowly, bit-by-bit and drop-by-drop, so that every last intricate detail can be savored.

And that's what it's all really about: details. Whether they be the details of a city, or of a person, or of a relationship, there is an inherent beauty and fascination in the small, simple wonders of our world. Those wonders might take the form of a rainbow, or they might take the shape of a thunderstorm. It is part of the character of humanity, however, to rationalize these irrational products of nature: to explain why lightning rages over a village or why color appears in tiny pockets of light in a black-and-white world. We do this to make sense of things that would not otherwise make any sense whatsoever. But rarely do we wonder, as Nazarian does, what might happen if these products of nature took on a life of their own, and forced us to personify them, forced us to explain them, so that they might be more capable of understanding themselves. This twist on her premise allows Nazarian to paint a strong structural through-line on which her story rests — one we are not made aware of until we read those final three haunting words: "Always remember me." Could so much turmoil and spilled blood have been the product of a deity's simple wish that he or she not be forgotten? Could our gods be so egotistic — would they, in their infinite power, allow such awful human errors and warfare to perpetuate so they could achieve more glory, or greater infamy? It is a haunting notion, but one not so alien to us. Lords Of Rainbow is a distinctly fantastical book set in a faraway world, but the concerns of the citizens of that world mirror the concerns we hold today, and have held for centuries.

The novel therefore works on three levels — it is simultaneously an examination of the nature of faith, of the nature of power, and of the relationship shared between those two things; and in these examinations, with a story set against foreboding conflict, Vera Nazarian finds great potency and great relevance to the world we live in today, despite the unfamiliar, haunting, and ultimately unforgettable locale of her tale.

[Daniel James Wood]

Lords Of Rainbow is a print-on-demand book; it is not published in bulk, and it is unlikely that you will find it in a bookstore. However, it is available at various online booksellers, or directly from the publisher. Also, the author herself maintains an excellent Web site complete with reviews, a list of appearances, and her own personal remarks. Both sites are well worth a visit.