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The Duke in His Castle by Vera Nazarian

Published by Norilana Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

In a distant land an ancient and powerful king was beset by ambitious nobles who sought to depose him, and had to defeat them. A man inclined to mercy and wise in the arcane arts, this ancient Just King decided not to execute the would-be usurpers, but instead to punish them in a way that would ensure they would raise no further rebellions, yet their estates would not be deprived of their wisdom and leadership. Thus he imposed upon them a mystical binding that held them each within their respective castles, unable to depart however they might try. Furthermore, this binding was hereditary, passed down through the generations -- but the Just King also provided an escape hatch for them in the form of a secret possessed by each of them, an arcane talent such that if any one noble would learn all the others', freedom would be his for the taking.

Or so the story went as it was passed down through the generations. Rossian, the current duke of Violet, knows only the endless frustration that comes from confinement when his spirit longs to travel the world and see its wonders. When we first meet him, he is standing at the very edge of the boundary, feeling its magical presence holding him as he leans against it.

And then he's interrupted by the butler, bearing news of a mysterious figure at the gates with a box supposedly containing the remains of some ancient princess. Although irritated, the duke is also bored and frustrated, and the idea of a diversion, even that of the mad, proves oddly welcome. So he finally relents and the strange woman is escorted in with her box of remains, which she claims belong to Nairis the Fabled One.

Thus begins an intricate duel of wits between Rossian the unwilling host and this woman in her harlequin costume, who alternately refers to herself as Jane and Izelle, and later as Janerizelle. She claims to be a cousin of some degree to the Duchess of White, sent by her to penetrate the secret of the family of Violet and take it home to her lady mistress, yet it becomes steadily clearer that her real mission relates to the box of remains. It is not precisely a mystery in the conventional sense, since there is no crime to be solved, but there is deception in abundance that Duke Rossian must pierce in order to discover the truth. A truth that proves entangled in the fantasy play of a lonely orphaned child until fact and fancy can scarcely be distinguished.

A truth that can only be discovered in its entirety as the duke masters his arcane talent, which deals with the powers of life itself. For it turns out that the remains in that disgusting box, dried and crumbled though they may appear, are not from some princess long dead and forgotten, taken from their final resting place by some tomb robber in order to become an object of curiosity. And while the story of the Just King binding his nobles to their estates may hold some truth, it is not the full truth.

The sequence in which Rossian masters his sorcerous powers over the very substance of life itself is at once the most unsettling and the most profoundly beautiful part of the story, told in a language rich with eroticism yet oddly restrained for all that the prose is almost incredibly lush, detailed in a style more typical of the nineteenth century. As befits magic that deals with the very stuff of life, his efforts to restore this long-dead beauty to her proper state prove almost incredibly arousing, such that Duke Rossian's response to her presence is potently physical. Yet the language remains poetic even in the most intense sections, never descending into the salacious or the vulgar.

This intricate tale of wonder and mystical power has taken a rather round-about path on its way to publication, originally having been accepted for publication by a company that went bust before it could bring it out. Once Vera got her own publishing company on solid footing, she decided to bring it out under her own imprint, since its quality had been vetted by the other publisher that had failed for reasons having nothing to do with her work.

Review posted January 1, 2010

Buy The Duke In His Castle from Amazon.com

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