Salt of the Air by Vera Nazarian

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"Rossia Moya"
Image"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 Slaying of Winter"
"Sun, In its Copper Season"
"Lady of the Castle"
"Wound on the Moon"
"I Want to Paint the Sky"
"Lore of Rainbow"

"The Story of Love"

Vera Nazarian’s first collection of fiction, Salt of the Air, brings together her published work from 1985 through 2005, plus two previously unpublished stories.  Of these, nearly half appeared in the various editions of the Marion Zimmer Bradley Swords and Sorceress anthology series.  Perhaps in part because of this, many of the stories have a very similar feel, a similar mood and setting—it’s an enjoyable mood, neither overly dark nor sappy, but at times it gives the collection a monotonous feel.  Many of the individual stories are very good, but they’d be best enjoyed singly, with breaks for other reading between stories (as opposed to the rapid succession required for doing a review).
“Rossia Moya” begins the collection, and is one of the few with an atypical feel.  In his introduction to the book, Gene Wolfe identifies this story as the cipher to the rest, that to fully appreciate the others, one must first absorb this one.  It is a near-future story in which the narrator is returning to her native Russia in the final days before it is closed off completely from the rest of the world—no travel of any kind, phone lines cut, radio and other signals blocked.

Into this setup, the narrator walks for a last look at where she grew up.  She does not intend to stay.  Her husband and son remain behind, and parts of the story involve their anxious phone conversations as she lingers in her native land and the date of the Closing approaches.  She sees things, though, parts of Russian history and folklore replaying themselves, replacing the contemporary look of buildings and the modern dress of the people.  And even after all her years away, the country has a hold on her.  The story is a touching and elegiac one, hauntingly powerful.  And though it’s very different from most of the stories to come on the surface, it sets up this idea of a longing for home, of the traveler searching for something psychologically important, and of the bittersweet ways of life themes that weave through the rest.  This is the strongest story in the collection, stylistically and thematically a gem.

“Beauty and His Beast” is one of the earlier stories here (published in 1991) and more typical on its surface of most of the rest of the stories.  It retells the story of Beauty and the Beast with genders reversed.  This could have easily been either too close a retelling and therefore adding nothing to the classic story or a chance for a political axe-grinding, but Nazarian avoids both, allowing the story to develop on its own, around a female leader who cloaks herself in darkness so that none see her face and Moere, the beautiful young man who falls for her.

The Beast and Moere meet every evening to ramble through the rose gardens, and she gives him the gift to see the world around him with a strange second vision.  Both his second vision and her life, though, are threatened on the day he chooses not to visit her, carrying echoes of the way Belle’s actions threaten the Beast in the standard tellings of the story.  The ending, like many of the stories to come, has an almost-parable feel to it, a sort of psychological allegory that will be familiar to those who have read Nazarian’s novel Dreams of the Compass Rose.  It makes for an interesting and thought-provoking story, though others, I thought, were more successful.

“The Young Woman in a House of Old” stands out in this collection as an odd and evocative tale, very different from the others.  Marianne, the young woman of the title, lives surrounded by the elderly—she calls them her grandparents and great-grandparents, great-aunts, second cousins, etc., but she never quite understands how they’re related to her.  The story spans nearly her entire life, though most of it dwells on her school years and the friendships she has with two of her classmates as they get older and the others move away.

The house is full of mysteries, many of which Marianne only learns to question as she discovers more of what the rest of the world is like.  What are the kindly goblins and gnomes who also live there?  Where does their food come from, and the money to buy it?  With so many old people around her, why does no one die?  And why won’t the others begin eating unless she’s there with them?  The mysteries are intriguing, and the telling of the story is handled with just the right touch to make it engrossing.

The story is definitely not a horror story, but it does have the feel of a ghost story, haunting but never fearful in how it lingers in the mind.

At first “Absolute Receptiveness, the Princess, and the Pea” feels like nothing more than a rather tired retelling of the fairy tale referred to in the title, though the unreliability of the narrator provides for some added depth.  A girl claiming to be a princess arrives and begs for a bed to sleep on.  The queen, stepmother to the narrator, places a pea at the bottom of an enormous pile of mattresses, and the prince decides to warn the girl after she has lain down to sleep.

Here is where the story takes a strange, almost surreal twist, and the reader is left wondering what exactly happened that night in the bedroom of the princess.  It is fascinating in its uncertainties, though that doesn’t completely overcome the shortcomings of the beginning of the story.

“Bonds of Light” is the story of Erester, the half-mad seventh son of the West Emperor, who is named heir over his brothers.  Approaching is the army of Arirante, the woman who has conquered and united the other empires, and threatening both are hordes of barbarians.  When Erester and Arirante meet, it is revealed that the West Emperor had made an agreement to wed his heir to Arirante in exchange for a united defense against the barbarians.  Neither is completely taken with the prospect of their marriage, so much of the story is of their conflict.

Stylistically, much of the language is beautiful, especially the opening of the story, but the dialogue at times seems strained, and the ending relies too much on one character explaining to the other exactly what just happened and what it means about themselves, their past, their future.  Still, the language may be enough for many readers to overcome this.

“The Starry King” gives us Nellval, a swordswoman with old eyes who comes to the village searching for the Starry King of the title, a mythical figure that is no longer believed in.  She is a broken woman, beyond even despair, but focused on her search for this myth.  According to legend, this king releases any who find him from all guilt, not in a legal sense but from a seeker’s personal guilt, but for a price.  And the legends turn out to be true in their way, but with a final twist, both in the way the legend plays out and in the way Nellval reacts, that makes the story.

Even more so than the other stories “The Stone Face, the Giant, and the Paradox” has the feel of a fairy tale that we just don’t know yet.  In it, Janéh is the daughter of the village simpleton, who has died, and her father is rumored to have been of the Fair Folk.  This, the villagers say, is why her face never shows expression.  Her presence in the village evokes a broad range of reactions from the villagers—the acceptance of the innkeeper whose floors she cleans, the mistrust of the richest merchant, the angry lust of that merchant’s son, and the acceptance that borders on fawning of the blacksmith’s son who wants to be a poet.

When the villagers begin to believe that the giant of legend is waking and will destroy them, it is the mistrust that wins out, and so this enjoyable fairy tale plays out from there.

“A Thing of Love” is the story of a queen and her sister, the royal executioner, and it could be possible to see the title as referring to sisterly love.  But as the story progresses, the meaning of the title changes.  A popular nobleman criticizes the queen and is sentenced to die.  His brother comes to Faelittal, the executioner, to beg for his life.  She listens to his entreaties but does not seem moved by them.

It is in the final scene that the nature of her love becomes clear, a love that might include her sister but includes more.  And the way each of the people at the execution, even the queen herself, feels to be the one punished is a perfect touch.  The story portrays a rather bleak view of society, but tempered with the executioner’s love.

In “The Slaying of Winter,” Ilis, a woman from the hot south, travels to the cold north to avenge her family, who were slain by northern raiders.  But it isn’t the raiders themselves she wishes to kill, but their god, Trei, the god of winter whose name the raiders chanted as they killed.  It’s an enjoyable story as she falls in with a band of northerners and enlists the aid of one of them who also holds a grudge against the winter god.  And the ending, fitting the parable nature of many of the stories, has a nice surprise when she confronts the winter god.  But even more than the other stories, this one suffers from being read in conjunction with the rest.

“Sun, In its Copper Season” has a distinct feel to it, perhaps because the ageless young woman who is the heroine, while strong and in command of many people, does not seek to achieve her goal by sword or other physical force.  Also, where many of the stories are about humans seeking and meeting some divine or mythical power, the woman here is herself such a power.  As she shuts her eyes, the sun sets.  As she wakes, the sun rises.

But then something goes wrong inside her, and she cannot fall asleep.  And the sun fails to set as well.  Servants scramble to help her and latch onto the idea of a mysterious man who has been seen periodically passing through her gardens.  The story runs from there as a beautiful myth that nicely avoids a conclusion that would have seemed logical but cheap at once.  Instead the ending is strange and appropriate with just a hint of bittersweet to it.

In “Lady of the Castle,” Ruricca NoOnesDaughter is a traveling performer who happens to be the only one beside the lord of Rainn Castle when he is struck by an arrow and dies.  Because of tradition, she is obligated to become the castle’s new sovereign.  She may not refuse, and even the king’s son who had expected to inherit must accept her.  Outside the city, however, is a rival lord who ordered the lucky arrow shot and now hopes to test the new ruler.

The rival lord, however, doesn’t count on the magic of the castle itself and of some of its inhabitants.  This one suffers a bit in the way the ending follows the pattern of so many of the other stories, but it’s still an enjoyable journey there.

“Wound on the Moon” gives us Nazarian’s quintessential heroine—strong, beautiful, self-assured, and good with a sword—who is stuck in a cell awaiting what seems to be sure death.  Flashbacks explain who Lyren is (though withholding one key part of her identity until the ending) and how she got there: by looking up as the city’s demon lord passed and seeing his eyes.  Then the story moves on to her audience with the lord, who is rumored to be the son of the moon and incapable of feeling pain.

The demon lord lusts for Lyren, though he’s never been attracted to women before.  Part of that withheld information might explain this attraction, but it still seems a stretch, overly convenient.  And possibly even offensive, as it calls to mind the cringe-worthy idea that a gay man only has to meet the right kind of woman to change him (though an unintentional subtext, I have no doubt).  The ending, however, is powerful as Lyren and the demon lord face off in opposition to each other.  It’s a strong look at and celebration of what it means to be human.

“I Want to Paint the Sky” has several wonderful moments in it.  It centers on the sister of a royal portraitist, and one of those moments comes from the pictures she paints and then shows to her older brother:  “Her images were neither alive nor realistic like a mirror.  Rather, they were fabulous, brazen, impossible, unreal—and thus divine.”  This can clearly be taken as a parallel to speculative writing, which adds a nice layer of meaning to the entire story.  Also delightful in a playful way is the manner in which the Lord Astean, her brother’s liege and the queen of a distant land, court each other through portraits.

The pride each sovereign takes in their respective portraitists, however, leads to tension, and for the marriage to proceed, the queen gives them a challenge—paint a picture of what the sky will look like in two weeks.  I have a vague feeling that this is the task given to some hero in a fairy tale or myth, though I can’t recall exactly what.  But the focus here is on the sister, the painter of the impossible.  And the ending, while not all that surprising, fits perfectly to make this a great story about (though not only about) the power of speculation, of fantasy, and imagination.

One of the stories original to this collection is “Lore of Rainbow,” the story of a world that is being bled of all color.  A cutter of jewels, whose indolent husband may have been descended from the divine powers of the rainbow but who left her, goes out in search of the rainbow lords.  She summons them and challenges each color in turn to attempt to bind them back to the world they are leaving.  It revolves around a fascinating myth, one that seems both perfectly logical and at the same time new.  What makes it stand out among the others is the way the ending plays out, not utterly bleak but still far less hopeful than many of the myth-like stories here.

“Swans” recalls the various stories and fairy tales about the swan brothers and sister.  It begins with the narrator furiously knitting the final—seventh—shirt while she stands atop a pile of wood set to be lit.  Her story, then, is told in flashback, of the magic she is trying to enact by refusing to utter a sound for seven years even as she knits those shirts.  Most of those years she spent alone, until a king found her, fell in love, and carried her to his castle as his mute queen.

Without giving away too much, by the time the story begins she has been accused of treachery—falsely, but she won’t speak even to defend herself.  It is not a story to right wrongs, not a story that ends in justice, but it does end in an escape from injustice, and the fairy-tale grounding of the story give it surprising power.

Finally, “The Story of Love,” is the other previously unpublished story.  It is the only of these to clearly reference the setting of Dreams of the Compass Rose and shares with that novel its mood.  It begins, “It is such an easy thing:  all stories are the same.  They are histories of the act of taming with love.”

Crea is the daughter of abusive Nahad Eri-Devi.  Abusive fathers in fiction are often used as cheap shortcuts to creating sympathy for the protagonist, but that isn’t the case here.  Both Nahad Eri-Devi and Crea feel like real characters, and Crea’s desperation to escape strikes at a deeper level than cheap manipulation.  She does escape, marrying the first man she can.  She feels relief and gratitude to the man, though without being in love, but as the title and opening imply, this is a story of love—of love in all its complexities and imperfections, the love between a man and his dead wife, between father and daughter, between a couple even when they don’t seem to be in love.  It’s a fitting story to end the collection.

Apart from “Rossia Moya” and “The Young Woman in a House of Old,” the rest of these stories take place in a vaguely rendered past of royalty with genuine authority, of swords, and of higher powers that are directly involved in mortal life.  Such things are common to a certain type of fantasy, yet rather than evoking an overly familiar pseudo-medieval Western Europe, there’s a strong Eastern European and Middle-Eastern vibe to these stories.  It’s a nice touch, and added to the overall tone of these, grounded in fairy tales whether familiar or simply something that ought to be a fairy tale, it makes for an enjoyable collection, though one I would recommend reading over a longer span of time.

Publisher: Prime Books (September 2006)
Paperback/Hardcover Price: $17.95/29.95
Pages: 272
ISBN: 0809557371/080955738X