Vera Nazarian, Salt of the Air (Prime, 2006)
Salt of the Air, a collection of tales by Vera Nazarian, is aptly named, for what is contained within its pages is nothing less than pure, distilled Nazarian spirit. I had read her for years, usually within the pages of Marion Zimmer Bradley's Sword and Sorceress anthologies, and while I did not always recall her name, I could recognize one of her stories within a handful of sentences. She writes with an elegance and grace that is at times ethereal, picking out other worlds in soft watercolors with an impressionist's brush. At other times, her writing is penetrating and sharp, piercing to the heart of a concept or a theme. Or you.
This anthology spans quite a time period in Nazarian's writing life, pulling together some of her youngest stories and setting them right next to pieces from later in her career. Often, however, you don't notice a difference. Her early works (including "Wound on the Moon," "The Starry King," and "A Thing of Love") have incredible power and have no trouble matching -- at times, surpassing -- some of her more recent works such as "Rossia Moya," "The Slaying of Winter," and "Sun, In Its Copper Season."
As I read, I wrote down the thoughts engendered by each story just after each concluding endmark. I would like to share several of those impressions with you, in the hopes that it will prove a far better gauge of what awaits you in this collection than any other review method could achieve.
"Beauty and His Beast": I read this one while laying on the couch in dim light. My hands were hurried, feverishly flipping the pages to see what next, what next? Yet in that, I felt my desires to be frustrated. There simply wasn't enough to this story. The fairy tale was too ethereal, too familiar in its unfamiliarity: it felt like a gossamer window through which one was simply meant to explore a concept. Perhaps this is a tale that takes some time to mature; I may read it again later.
"The Young Woman in the House of Old": Wow. This story kind of hurt. It's rather a short biography of an extraordinary little girl who is forced into a life of quiet and frustrating mediocrity by the demands of her family (inherited family? phantom family? all those people in her life who just expect something of her?). They don't ask it of her, but she gives it because she knows they can't survive without her. She is the center that must hold. It doesn't matter that she's passionate and brilliant: she is needed in a most unique way and she won't abandon that post. She will give of herself, selflessly, until nothing is left.
The story makes me uncomfortable. Once, I would have given everything for the elders in my family just so. But I quickly learned the value of survival and how that lay in not anchoring myself to the previous generation of my blood relations. And even though I know that is necessary and I am determined to be myself, to burn brightly as a sun, I feel vaguely shamed by this story, shamed that there would be this Marianne, who took all the unwanted elders and fed them with her heart.
"A Thing of Love": This chilling title for an execution-tale gives way to a captivating story of a passionate queen, her implacable executioner-sister, and the sea of her court and people who watch the blade come down in the queen's commanded "acts of love." This story was beautifully and cohesively told; the prose suited the subject and the subject was quite piercing indeed. The entire conceptual framework led into a certain tableau and the moments just after -- haunting.
"Sun, In Its Copper Season": If Day and Wakefulness were a woman and Time & Seasons a man, should they forever meet and be entwined? Or should they pass each other by, two concept-beings in parallel? The story had a very strong conceptual basis, very fable-like, really. Vera's powers of description are pretty upper tier. I left the story feelig like I'd just eaten a feathery confection rather than any substantive fare.
"I Want to Paint the Sky": There were three positive things about this story. One, it was written in her usual elegant and lyrical style. Two, I couldn't predict the plot: the storyline actually went contrary to what I thought was unfolding and I respect that. Three, she poked fun at her constant involvement in Concept Land via a snarky thought Lord Astean had about his Queen-to-be.
However, I really don't like how this story turned out. I love that the girl had a gift that was both different from and surpassing her brother's gift. I didn't like the clumsy moment of magical realism in which the girl actually ended up doing what she did. The closing cartoonish scene and resultant power just took me way out of the tale and left me shaking my head.
"Lore of Rainbow": This story was strange. It felt like a fairy tale that was acid-tripping through Concept Land, with a bit of Societal Message thrown in for good measure. Honestly, I didn't care much for it. The beginning was alright and I like how it turned into a madwoman's quest (and dislike how she left her young child at home). I don't like the resolution that Vera tried to sell us on -- she was too formless in her closing. However, I see via the Internet that she's turned this premise into a novel: Lords of Rainbow. The book sounds much better.
"Swans": Wow. This was an awesome rewritten fairy tale and quite possibly the best story in Vera's collection here. The sheer power. . . . She honed this story to a stiletto-thin blade and then aimed right for your heart. She flirted with madness and passion, love and loyalty . . . and culminated in a truly perfect moment. I salute her.
You will have noticed that Vera is exceedingly fond of concept pieces. Sometimes they work and sometimes they don't. Sometimes they are her strength, while at other times they leave her stories feeling broken or insubstantial. That's really the biggest drawback I can find in her work, and it may not be considered a drawback by all.
I recommend savoring Salt of the Air. Leave it on your bed stand. Each night, perhaps with a nice cup of tea, delve into one of her stories. Enjoy them slowly, even skipping a night or two here and there to make the collection last longer. Let the reflections and worlds contained in each story creep into your brain. Then dream remarkable dreams.
[Deborah J. Brannon]