Monday, March 09, 2009

Book/Magazine Review: Dreams of The Compass Rose by Vera Nazarian

Every Monday, I'll be doing spoiler-free, bite-sized book/magazine reviews.
Vera Nazarian employs a fairly traditional and even romantic method of narration but what makes Dreams of the Compass Rose quite unique is its format. It's reminiscent of mosaic novels or even the high fantasy equivalent of Jack Vance's Tales of the Dying Earth as each chapter stands well on its own and explores a facet of the various characters. I like the Tales of the Dying Earth comparison as a minor character in the previous story might take center stage in the next.

The narrative isn't chronological and with all the character-leaping, this isn't the most accessible of texts--at least from the beginning. Later on, as readers get a firmer handle on the lead characters, the main plot emerges and everything starts to make sense. Again, what the reader can appreciate is the fact that each of the chapters are short stories and no previous knowledge of the others are needed. However, when read as a whole, the impact is amplified and allusions take on a new meaning. While the two main plot threads are evident and essential, Nazarian makes the most of the novel's length to diverge into side-stories which add color. It's like having The Tales of Beedle the Bard included in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

As far as Nazarian's skill is concerned, she has an equal mastery of the craft without any one quality truly dominating. The language is functional but has a certain charm to it, almost approaching a certain lyricism. The setting satisfies one's minimum requirements and hints at the appropriate doses of mysticism and fantasy: Not quite the elaborate world-builder's utopia but neither is it a lazy attempt. And then there's the characters. The author assembles quite a cast and through the use of unreliable narrators and diverging perspectives, there's a gamut of richness here. They're not unpredictable by any means but they do feel genuine and again, Nazarian is channeling that romance vibe which fits the tone of the book.

Another striking element when it comes to Dreams of the Compass Rose is where the author steers this novel. While one can read this as a straightforward fantasy, it also has metafictional undertones, especially one chapter wherein we dive into the life of a storyteller. Also impressive is the cyclical sequence of the stories which is a recurring theme.

I've read some of Nazarian's previous longer fiction but I have to say this is my favorite Nazarian book. Dreams of the Compass Rose combines many disparate elements into a unified whole. While her writing style isn't particularly new, the synthesis of what's included in this novel is something that readers looking for something different can appreciate. The slow build-up of one revelation after another rewards patient readers and even if this intricate puzzle is taken apart piece by piece, it still works in whatever context it's placed in.

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