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Salt of the Air by Vera Nazarian

Published by Norilana Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

In this volume Vera Nazarian has gathered a number of her fantasy stories, particularly those that do not belong to her Compass Rose universe. Several of them were originally published in various volumes of Marion Zimmer Bradley's Sword and Sorceress anthology, or in other themed anthologies that can be found readily (if not new, at least through used-book dealers), but others appeared in magazines or fiction websites now long discontinued, remembered only by those who made a special effort to follow them.

And that points up one great problem with short stories -- they're so often printed in formats that are essentially ephemeral, and thus will slip away into the fog of time if no effort is made to reprint them in more lasting volumes. Unlike novels, they're often difficult to locate for the simple reason that the collective works in which they are printed often are not indexed in ways that make it easy for a would-be reader to locate them. Which is why a collection such as this one is such a treasure for the fans of an author -- it's an opportunity to read those stories that have slipped through the cracks over the years, and to have them all gathered in a single volume that's easily located on one's shelves (or in one's computer for digital versions).

This collection opens with an introduction by the redoubtable fantasist Gene Wolfe, whose Soldier of Arete duology gives a strange and evocative take on Ancient Greece. Here Mr. Wolfe gives us a fable of a child who missed the first day of school, during which the other children were given a vital bit of information that was never repeated, and as a result went through the rest of his schooling feeling as though he was missing something important, but could never discover what it was. This Story Zero he uses to illustrate the importance of reading the first story before moving on to the rest of the stories in the collection, lest you miss some vital piece of information you'll need to understand the others.

That first story is "Rossia Moya," which is Russian for "My Russia." When you start reading it, it's very easy to think you are reading science fiction. To all appearances its one of those Twenty Minutes into the Future stories in which some relatively small but significant change has turned everything on its head. In particular, the world community's decision to write post-Soviet Russia off as a hopeless case and enclose it in an impenetrable barricade. No one and nothing may pass through, not even radio waves from outside transmitters, and the Russian people will be left to survive or die by their own devices. (If you think such an action far-fetched, there was serious discussion in the 1970's and early 1980's of writing off several Third World countries, including Haiti and Bangladesh, as hopeless cases and terminating all aid to them, although most people then agreed that trying to completely barricade them against escape would probably be impossible).

The protagonist is a middle-aged woman who left Russia as a child and made a successful life for herself in the West. She wants to say good-bye to her old home and childhood haunts one last time before the Closing shuts off any possibility of revisiting them. She's promised her family that everything is safe, that she will be very careful not to do anything that could cause her to not be allowed to return home. But as she actually arrives in Moscow and begins seeing familiar places from her childhood, she's no longer so certain what exactly is home. And then the magic begins to appear and we know that we are not in your typical Twenty Minutes into the Future fictional world, not at all.

The next story, "Beauty and His Beast," is a retelling of the traditional Beauty and the Beast fairy tale with the genders reversed. A land whose queen is monstrous in appearance, yet hidden within her is an inner beauty that awaits only the right soul to set it free in a transformative moment of eucatastrophe.

"The Young Woman in a House of Old," like "Rossia Moya," is a story with autobiographical elements, although subtly woven into the story, such that one could read it a dozen times and never once feel any sense of Author Avatar self-insertion that often comes from overtly autobiographical fiction. Yet at the same time the story of the little girl who grows up amidst ever growing crowds of elderly relatives rings true with the emotional sureness of someone who understands from the inside the sort of bond with family that would lead one to remain ever at home with them, even at the price of turning down significant opportunities in the wider world. If the afterlife is indeed a derivative of our sense of person-permanence, does it not stand to reason that there needs to be someone for whom those persons remain permanent for the afterlife to continue?

I am of two minds about the next story, "Absolute Receptiveness, the Princess and the Pea." On one hand, we have a lush and evocative modern retelling of a traditional fairy tale that doesn't shrink back from the more lusty and earthy aspects of life, reminding us that there was once a time in which fairy tales were still for adults and dealt with dark and frightening parts of life, before they were relegated to the nursery and Bowdlerized accordingly. On the other hand, there are elements that could be exceedingly triggery for people who are survivors of certain kinds of abuse, and it could be argued that the positive portrayal of the protagonist's actions contribute to rape culture.

However, if one reads closely and carefully, it is no longer certain who conquered and who was conquered. Perhaps might we have a case in which the would-be ravisher instead discovers himself to have been sucked in to his own detriment, rather like at least two Western European dictators have sought to invade and defeat Russia only to there find their own destruction? And Gene Wolfe's admonition to read the first story before all the rest starts to take on additional levels of meaning.

"Bonds of Light" tells the story of Erester, seventh son of the West Emperor, and his power to harness light that may be a blessing or a curse to the Imperial family. It is the story of a marriage of state, and of an impetuous young man who burns with the madness of forbidden love, the sort that can turn to hate in the end. And just as it appears everything will surely end in tragedy, we have a surprise revelation of a hidden truth that turns everything around and gives us an unexpected homecoming. It's an odd story, and one that seems to draw upon folkloric traditions with which I'm not familiar, but I hope that at least for some readers it will work.

"The Starry King" has a mythic ring to it, of the origins of the constellations in a time when people believed the sky was a ceiling like a dome overhead and the stars within it lamps placed by divine or magical agency in designs that represent those who've found favor with them. The woman Nellval seeks the titular figure, or rather the man whose griefs led him to be placed in the sky, for it is believed that he is a bearer of burdens, one who can take others' griefs upon himself. Some think she is mad, while others warn that such a thing can come only at a terrible price. And in the end we learn that there is a time for burdens to be passed on, for a new generation to take up the roles of their forefathers and foremothers.

In "The Stone Face, the Giant and the Paradox" we have a story of a most peculiar monster -- a woman whose face is frozen like a mask, incapable of normal expression. As a result, Janéh is an object of revulsion to those around her, to the point that she's filled with self-hatred. The villagers make a scapegoat of her, blaming her whenever a hunt goes awry, when tools break or other ordinary things go wrong. And then the hunter Ailan enters her life, and everything changes. For the Giant has awakened, a vast stumbling creature like an enormous two-year-old, oblivious to the wreckage it causes as it passes through the frail lives of ordinary mortals. For it is lost in its eternal Dream, until it can be Awakened and reveal the truth of Jané:h's past.

"A Thing of Love" is the story of an executioner, the sister of a queen who believes that punishment is an act of love. Some say that Faelittal lacks a soul, that she is a demon in human form, and for certain she does have a peculiar flat affect that a modern psychiatrist would probably diagnose as a symptom of a mental disorder. But she lives in a world of magic and wonder, and when a condemned dissident's brother pleads for him to be spared, it opens the door to a revelation at once both terrible and wonderful.

"The Balance" is a tiny flash fiction piece, the story of Liir, a great wizard who decided to witness the ultimate nature of the universe, the Male and Female Principles of Life. It's an ironic little piece, almost a joke.

"Demonkiller" is the story of Agnias, a woman among the warrior priests of the fierce god Anrah. Mistaken for a boy by the slave-taker who sold her to the temple, she was discovered only after she had passed through critical initiatory rites that could not be undone, with the result that she must henceforth masquerade as a man in all things. But that is a small burden compared to her talent for exorcising demons, a talent she has come to hate. And then comes the day when a wealthy collector wishes to use her talent to capture a demon for his collection.

Or so he claims, in the process of luring her into his power. Only then does he reveal his true intentions toward her. And in doing so he reveals to her a truth about himself, and thus the greatest challenge she has ever faced.

In "The Slaying of Winter" we have a nature myth of an imagined world. It's the story of Iliss, who travels to the far north to confront and slay Winter, the God known as Trei, whose grip holds her sister's mind in madness. It's a story of determination that to another might seem insane, as it does to the Northmen who take her in for a time. And it ends elusively, with her leaving to see whether her actions have brought about their desired result for her sister.

"Sun, In Its Copper Season" is a strange and evocative story of a beautiful woman who lingers in a trance state in a wondrous palace, tended by servants who see to her every need. There are hints that she is some kind of spiritual being, perhaps a sun goddess or nature elemental, but the story focuses entirely on the minutiae of her strange condition, not her origins or purpose in existence. It may not be for everyone's taste, but it is an interesting puzzle to read.

"Lady of the Castle" is a story of Ruricca NoOne'sDaughter, one of Ms. Nazarian's ongoing characters. She is a woman without memory, wandering through a world to which she is a stranger. In this story she becomes entangled in the affairs of Rainn Castle and its household. Its lord lies dead, and his killer must be found. To do so, Ruricca will delve into secrets both dark and light, and the problems of intentions gone awry and the degree to which one ought be punished for something done with the best of intent.

"Wound on the Moon" takes us to a land reminiscent of the Middle East before the rise of Islam, where the beautiful thief Lyren is being held in the prison of the Al-Eralir, the lord of the city of Aerhad-el-Raas. He is said to be a demon, his mother the moon itself descended from the sky to join with his mortal father. Our protagonist's offense is having gazed upon him as his entourage passed through his city, and when she is brought before him to be judged, she repeats her offense. It arouses his curiosity, and thus begins the intricate dance between them, a dance of ambition, of betrayal, and dare one say, even of love?

In "Revulsion and the Beast" retells the story of Beauty and the Beast from the perspective of one of Beauty's sisters. A sister who is the living embodiment of Revulsion, her body twisted and disgusting to gaze upon. And thus it is with piquant, subtle irony that she tells the story of what came after.

"I Want to Paint the Sky" is a story about art and dreams and desire. Evirie, sister of the Royal Painter Meost, wanted to paint the sky. So she became a painter of natural scenes, capturing the wild beauty of the land with the same talent her brother used to capture the stately power of their sovereign. And then comes the day when Meost is a contestant in a Competition with the Royal Painter of a neighboring land, bidden to paint the sky as it will appear on a given day in the future. Not gifted with prescience, he tries his best to paint the most likely sky for the season -- only to have the atmosphere betray him. And then his sister reveals a wondrous magic, and the fulfillment of her youthful dreams in a most extraordinary and unexpected manner.

"Lore of Rainbow" tells the backstory of the novel Lords of Rainbow, the story of a gem-carver and the struggles to perfectly capture the colors of light. It too has the sense of myth, but of a world very different from our own, one in which the colors are not merely wavelengths of light interacting with the opsins of the eye, but are living deities with will and intent, who can grant beauty to the world or withdraw it.

"Swans" is yet another retelling of the story of the Seven Swans, the brothers who are enchanted to take the form of swans and the sister who must make them shirts of fabric spun from nettles in order to break the spell and restore them to human form. It is told from the point of view of the sister, with a quiet desperation of one who has been at a thankless task for far too long, who now faces even worse travails from people to whom she cannot communicate her true situation and who misunderstand it as an act of evil rather than of love. And then in the moment of apparent triumph, we discover the true terrible price she has paid for her travail and the freeing of her beloved brothers.

The final entry in this collection is "The Story of Love," and it is a story of the world of the Compass Rose. It is the story of Nahad, a wealthy man and a cruel one, and of his daughter Crea who is the object of so much of that cruelty. And then comes the day when he arranges a marriage for her.

From the beginning her new husband is a vision of kindness, treating her as though she were some angelic being descended from the heavens, too precious to be sullied with the touch of ordinary men. As his awe subsides, he begins to love her in the ordinary way, and they make a happy family -- but Crea's father still manages to cast a shadow over that happiness, blaming her for having a daughter rather than a son as her first child. So she shuts him out, ceasing to reply to his letters -- until the day comes when he sends word that ruin has come over the family and that she should return.

So she does, accompanied by her husband, who asks a boon of her. Within her home city lies a temple of the God of Love, and he wishes that she would pray there for love. For although she has been a dutiful wife to him, she has never truly loved him.

Although disappointed by this assessment of her character, Crea does so, asking the God of Love to fill her heart with love until it overflows. And thus she goes to her father's house, finding it barren and full of despair. Her father has grown aged and withered since she last saw her, so frail that a single blow could shatter him. And then, in one glorious moment, the power of the God of Love works a wondrous transformation.

It's an uncomfortable read, because on first glance it would almost seem to be promoting those old tropes of how a good woman's love can change an abuser's heart. But on second look, we see that it is not Crea's love, but that of the God of Love -- and thus the aversion, even negation, of that old trope. No, mere natural love cannot bring about such change, only supernatural love, the touch of the divine.

And thus concludes a collection of stories wondrous and strange. They may not be for every reader, but for those who still love the old tales with their lush imagery and intricate language, there is much here to savor and enjoy.

Table of Contents

  • Introduction by Gene Wolfe
  • "Rossia Moya"
  • "Beauty and His Beast"
  • "The Young Woman in a House of Old"
  • "Absolute Receptiveness, The Princess, and the Pea"
  • "Bonds of Light"
  • "The Starry King"
  • "The Stone Face, the Giant, and the Paradox"
  • "A Thing of Love"
  • "The Balance"
  • "Demonkiller"
  • "The Slaying of Winter"
  • "Sun, in its Copper Season"
  • "Lady of the Castle"
  • "Wound on the Moon"
  • "Revulsion and the Beast"
  • "I Want to Paint the Sky"
  • "Lore of Rainbow"
  • "Swans"
  • "The Story of Love"

Review posted August 20, 2012

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