Dreams of the Compass Rose

Dreams of the Compass Rose
by Vera Nazarian, 2002
Reviewed by Tanya B. Avakian

It is rumored in the lands of the Compass Rose that death is a chameleon. But in truth that is not so. For death has been, and always will be forthright.

It is only death’s scythe that shimmers…

Vera Nazarian, “The Shimmering Scythe,” in Dreams of the Compass Rose

I first got to know Vera Nazarian the writer and Vera Nazarian the person when I was legally out to lunch. Having fractured an ankle very severely and come down with adult pertussis on the same day, I spent several months dreaming awake, on a cocktail composed of fever, prescription narcotics, and fantastic literature. I had not read fantastic literature in over ten years. This was to be the beginning of a passionate reunion with science fiction, fantasy, and fandom, with the establishment of an online fan identity and maiden con-going soon to follow. It was not intended that way. While it was a good time to curl up and pig out on stories as wild as some of the things going on in my head, I made no conscious effort to seek out tales of wonder. I did appear to be reading Everything that Begins with a V: Vonda N. McIntyre, Varlam Shalamov, Vassily Aksyonov, Vera Nazarian. These days I don’t know why the V’s were so important.

I know I was quite lucky in them. Hurricane Isabel made less of an impression than the writings of a young woman with a name that sounded like a pseudonym for my own, unfortunately on the opposite coast. I still don’t remember where and how I first heard of Vera Nazarian or found her work. Soon, however, I was corresponding with her and getting a better handle on what was happening to me, which also included beginning to write again after tricky changes of life and several years of neglect. The writing’s proportion of sense to nonsense followed a famous recipe for horse and rabbit stew, divided fifty-fifty. (One horse, one rabbit.) Yet I was imagining again. The rediscovery of my imagination owed something to altered brain chemistry but at least as much to Vera. Fandom can be a rough place, as can delirium; it makes a difference to begin with a friend. It’s a blessed experience to first visit a land that is very strange but has at least one good person in it: brilliant, devoted to those she loves, capable of fierceness but deeply kind, loyal in a way that restores meaning to the word, and funnier than the gods should allow. If you’re going someplace where trees talk, take Vera.

Vera Nazarian has been best known to date for her association with Marion Zimmer Bradley’s “Darkover.” She has perhaps been both lucky and unlucky in this. Lucky, in ways beyond the obvious, because it has kept her from being stereotyped as an exotic. It’s also a fair connection, because elements both of sword-and-sorcery and the historical pastiche associated with Bradley keep cropping up in Nazarian’s work. The Bradley influence has dwindled over the years; there are still swords aplenty and sorcery, often of a most peculiar and unnerving sort. In another way, Nazarian has not yet received the attention for her own voice that she might have had, as one of the more unique writers of today’s fantasy. My favorite of her books so far remains Dreams of the Compass Rose, perhaps because it’s the book of hers that comforted me while bedridden and hallucinating, but also because it is such a successful non-Western fantasy.

Vera Nazarian is Russian-Armenian, similar in parentage to Yelena Bonner. Her Russian side has predominated in much of her work. By contrast Dreams of the Compass Rose belongs very much to Armenia and the Anatolian plateau. It is set in a land called “Aramantea.” Two lovers, Seert and Ahiroon, are named for Armenian words (“heart” and “blood”), and names such as Grego, Zuaren, Annaelit all have close cognates in Armenian. More often Nazarian makes up a name that sounds like one of the Anatolian languages. There are Egiras and Cireive, which sound vaguely Turkic, or Lirheas and Ierulann, which sound Greek, or Nadir and Caelqua, with their Arabic ring. (Nadir is described as dark brown, possibly African.) The language traces aren’t systematized and are sometimes played for humor. Lord Urar-Tuan’s name is a pun on “Urartuan,” though he probably belongs to a Far Eastern cognate race.

Ris was once the mortal Ailsan, queen of the Risei. At the hands of the tyrant Cireive the Risei were exterminated but for Ailsan, who was raped, whipped, and forced to kneel at Cireive’s feet but escaped in the last minute by becoming Ris:

The gods, it is said, are all souls of different peoples. When a people dies, the last man or woman among them is always something more, something sacrosanct. It is the last that bears all the responsibility for a people, and is never to be dishonored.

Or else, the gods hear. And they elevate the one in misery, so that a new deity joins the pantheon, forged, like all the others, from the collective spirit of a people.

That is the secret of deity.

It’s very hard not to see some echo of the Turkish genocide of the Armenians in this story as Nazarian tells it. The parallel is not accomplished in a straightforward way, haunting though passages such as the above are in context. Jessica Amanda Salmonson’s magnificent Tomoe Gozen series has some things in common with Dreams of the Compass Rose. Salmonson’s Naipon is not a re-imagined Japan but a parallel Japan, maintaining the integrity of the real one, while allowing for magic to work as for the existence of lesbian samurai. In the same way one has the sense that in an alternate timeline Armenia became both Aramantea and Ailsan, the proud matriarch suffering rape and torture as in a later incarnation she suffers death by thirst, leaving Nadir and her other adoptive child, Caelqua, as orphans wandering the desert (a typical experience for Armenian children orphaned by the genocide). One of Ailsan’s speeches really does sound like the essence of Armenianness after 1915:

I am a jackal torn away from her cubs. I am the mother you never recognized in me, the mother you never had. Lirheas, Prince of Gheir, you will remember me always. Not because of what I am now, not because of pity, although that too you’ve felt. No…Remember me only as that which your father loved, hated, feared. For I revealed to him the truth of himself. And he will bear the burden of the truth now, unto madness.

Know that loyalty is the most precious thing. To be gifted in trust, not taken by force.

Know that a mother’s desperation is the strongest force, and a mother’s forsaking is the greatest loss. I now bear one secret guilt within me always, a guilt of pride. My son might have lived, if only–

And yet my spirit cries! I could not do otherwise! For now I am paradox. I am pride unfurled, coexisting with humility. I am Risei. I am Ailsan. I am the vast desert and the deep ocean. Remember me, for a goddess speaks within you now. And forget…

The Armenians coexisted for centuries with their Muslim neighbors, especially the Turks. The cultures of Armenia and Turkey were so intimately wound together as often to be hard to distinguish. Murder in the first, after all, is likely to be someone you know. Cireive is not called sultan but taqavor, Armenian for “king.” The tragedy of the house of Cireive is never more nor less than an intimate family tragedy:

The speaker was a woman, and yet her voice was muted, most distant of all, and her shape was a blur. He remembered the woman looking down at him, knew the vital importance of her, and yet could not see her face…She had looked at him, a small boy, holding him against her, warming him, humming a song that was not so much a lullaby as it was a keening cry of the ancients that had been sung for as long as he could remember.

My Cireive…

And yet the wind would blow from another direction, or recede in silence, and her voice would recede also.

Then, in the remaining silence, something would catch him unaware, and he would suddenly hear screeching echoes of thunder, and a red bleeding sky in a cold land. In that moment a blazing form of another, no longer human, would speak through his very skull, and he would remember the words of a mortal woman whom he had destroyed, and thus re-made into a goddess.

The same things can easily represent more than one meaning in Nazarian’s world. The story of Ailsan and Cireive is also the coming of patriarchy to the Near East. Cireive rejects his mother’s voice to destroy Ailsan when he cannot possess her. Ris is Armenia – maybe – but she is also the true face of Near Eastern culture as found in its patient, hardy and tyrannical womanhood, goddess, queen, and humble grandmother. Cireive, the rapist and murderer forever haunted by the woman he “loved, hated, feared,” may be Turkey, but he is also the masculinity of the Middle East, seething with resentment under his own bonds of protocol and sexual repression; he is called taqavor and thus implicates Armenia as well. It’s especially subversive that the taqavor has twelve wives and a harem, since Armenians, as Christians, have long prided themselves on their monogamy. “The taqavor’s son, the quiet and studious Prince Lirheas, had long since noticed an oddity–it seemed there were never any women nearby. In fact, when his father walked the palace, the female servants were either absent altogether or retreated quickly and discreetly, lowering their eyes, and drawing the dark cotton shawls about their faces…The highest-ranked Servants of the Wives would whisper to each other…that the taqavor refused to address by name the twelve beauties who had been designated his royal taqoui [queens], and the remaining two hundred concubines…It was thought that the women who serviced the taqavor were tormented and forced to endure unspeakable pain…and none would wish their fate upon any noble’s young daughter.”

Gentle though she is, Nazarian is able to show sexual violence and patriarchy as ubiquitous without gilding-the-ruins-to-subvert or preaching a sermon, whether a feminist one or a voyeuristic sermon covertly reveling in cruelty. The same is true for her rendering of a culture where violence in all forms is ubiquitous. She shows the blood itself, but also the dreariness of the cycle of violence and retribution. Nazarian manages this without condescension by also showing the intelligence and spirituality of people living mostly outside what we would know today as an intellectual culture, so that thoughts and dreams must have their consequences in acts. Stories of violence are stories of consequences, not of individual bloodlettings, just as love stories only begin with scenes set in the bedchamber if they begin there at all. Power is water and water changes hands. Ris and her children survive by the power of water – their ever-filling cup representing the greatest blessing in an arid land – and symbolically by the properties of water which nourish Near Eastern societies at their roots: cunning, endurance, subtlety, stubbornness, and women telling stories.

The plot of the novel mostly belongs to Nadir, who goes on a hero’s quest that takes him to many lands and very loosely ties together a series of standalone fables. Most of these are absolutely marvelous and at least one, “The Shimmering Scythe,” deserves to be a classic on its own. (Those few which borrow from other cultures than the author’s, such as “The Garden, the Wind, and the Gong,” are less successful, perhaps worth noting given Nazarian’s sumptuous thefts from European feudal culture in Salt of the Air.) There are magic steeds and galleons, intrigues and digressions enough to populate several fantasy novels by lesser writers, so it’s a sign of skill that the baseline plot is quite tight: Nadir expiates Cireive’s sin against his adoptive mother Ris through his bondage to Urar-Tuan’s adoptive daughter Egiras. Egiras is spoiled and without conscience, but Nadir becomes her servant willingly after he causes Urar-Tuan’s death. Binding is a perpetual theme in Nazarian’s work, here finding a natural cognate in the network of obligation on which Near Eastern culture is based. It is also Nadir’s fate to avenge the mortal form of Ris by entering the web of events that will ensure Cireive’s reckoning. But the reckoning comes about from within Cireive himself.

I would not recommend Dreams of the Compass Rose as the best place for a reader who is new to Nazarian’s work to begin. As splendid as it is, and as much as it’s the most fully realized of Nazarian’s longer works, it requires patience and is better on the second reading than the first (something true of much of Nazarian’s writing). It is however the book that is likeliest to get a skeptic of any kind to take Nazarian’s work seriously. The teasing, crooning quality of her storytelling style in Lords of Rainbow and The Duke in His Castle is set aside for a more crystalline voice. “Crystalline” is descriptive here, not hyperbolic. The prose is at once stark and dense, and more precise than in some of Nazarian’s lighter work. It is also worth mentioning that in Dreams of the Compass Rose Vera Nazarian has written an authentically non-Western fantasy that does not draw much on cultures other than the author’s own, but is at the same time a fantasy, not an alternate history or a re-imagining of existing folklore. One should not focus only on the historical heft behind Dreams of the Compass Rose, at the expense of its success as a real piece of sword and sorcery. Aramantea has some things in common with ancient Armenia, but it is also a form of Nehwon and Lankhmar, the Lankhmar of a woman born outside the West. Which is to say that Vera Nazarian gives us a Near East that is much more than a land of blood feuds and sensuality, magic and spices. It’s a place that is alive and kicking and full of dreams that know they’re dreams, and thus real. It’s one thing to open science fiction and fantasy to dreams of cultures other than those from Western Europe; quite another to hear them dream.

(Editor’s note: Dreams of the Compass Rose will be reissued sometime this year by Brick Tower Press.)