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The Duke In His Castle
Vera Nazarian
Norilana hardcover $17.95 / £12

review by David Hebblethwaite

After their failed rebellion against him, the Just King bound the Dukes and their heirs to remain within the walls of their homes - literally so, for invisible barriers prevent them from ever stepping outside. But there may be a way: rumour has it that all the Dukes have their own secret power and that, should a Duke or Duchess discover all the others' secrets, he or she would break the curse. So the Dukes (unable, of course, to travel themselves) have taken to sending out emissaries charged with unearthing these secrets.

However, Rossian, the Duke of Violet, has no interest in any of this. He is quite content to remain in his castle and let time pass him by. Others don't share his view, however - hence the visit he receives from Lady Izelle, the eccentric cousin of the Duchess of White, who would like to learn Rossian's secret. Izelle challenges the Duke to a game of hide and seek in exchange for the knowledge; but actually it's the first move in a game more complex than Rossian could ever have anticipated.

A much under-appreciated writer (an assumption I make based on the fact that her name does not appear on the bestseller lists), Vera Nazarian routinely (though there's nothing routine about the results) mines a far richer seam of fantasy in her work than you'll find in the average genre tale - and The Duke In His Castle is no exception. It may be a novella that takes place in a single edifice, but it has more to wonder at, think over, and simply to enjoy than many a roaming epic of several hundred pages.

Perhaps the main theme of The Duke In His Castle - and an area to which Nazarian takes a striking approach - is the wielding of power, magical and personal alike. The author treats her characters' magic pragmatically: the techniques Rossian and Izelle use to hide from each other are dropped in casually, like the parlour tricks they are. But, when it comes to exercising major power, there's a gravity that I can't remember having seen in another story for a long time. Even magical effects that might generally be considered 'good' have serious weight. Nazarian also poses (metaphorically) the question of whether it's better to sit back and do nothing (as Rossian would prefer to, at least initially); or, like Izelle, to take action and risk making mistakes. Her answer would appear to be that - well, there are no simple answers, because action and inaction both have their pros and cons.

There is also plenty to like about the novella aside from any subtext. The plot is compelling, as continual revelations about identities and intentions shift our perceptions of what's going on. Nazarian's prose is also typically effective - perhaps not quite as involving as some of hers that I've read in the past; but, in a way, that's appropriate here, as she evokes the suffocating atmosphere of a castle going to seed (rather like its owner) because nothing happens there - everything is told in the present tense, even past occurrences, collapsing the flow of events into one constant now.

Just as Rossian stays within the bounds of his castle, so Vera Nazarian's stories maintain a wonderfully high level of quality. And, while the former is limiting for the Duke of Violet, the latter is great news for anyone who loves fantasy; and it's why The Duke In His Castle belongs on your to-read list.
The Duke in His Castle

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