A Civic Fairy Tale: Lords of Rainbow by Vera Nazarian
Reviewed by Stephanie Dray
27 October 2003
While at first glance, Vera Nazarian's Lords of Rainbow seems to be a work of political fantasy, a closer reading reveals an unusual romance novel instead. For at heart, Lords of Rainbow is about a love affair between the wheel-shaped city of Tronaelend-Lis and her citizens. In the aftermath of the legendary Fall of the Rainbow, the steel and silver sun wraps the world in only shades of grey. This leaves the city of Tronaelend-Lis as a haven of light in an otherwise bleak and colorless world. The city is, after all, the home of the Light Guild whose artisans craft monochrome lamps to wash the city in the all but forgotten art of color.
The lovers of this fair city are her crafters, assassins, priests, nobles, and a centuries-old, sleeping King preserved in a glass coffin. Although we are told that the city is corrupt, it is clear from the outset that the problems stem from ineptitude rather than a lack of civic virtue -- for in the city of Tronaelend-Lis, even the assassins are patriots.
The body politic loves Tronaelend-Lis with a jaded eye, both entranced and repulsed by her excesses. One character even asserts that the city is a whore, a Hole of Gold. Yet they all want a part of her, including the guilds agitating for representation in government. The central tension in this love story occurs when a visitor from a foreign land arrives and mysteriously kills the palace guards. The stranger conveniently warns that Tronaelend-Lis should prepare for the coming of his master, whose name is too dark and terrible to be uttered. Smelling invasion in the air, the citizens know they must work together to preserve their city.
Though the author makes a feint at painting a complex political canvas by beginning the story with multiple point-of-view characters, after the first eighty-four pages, only three characters appear with any regularity or importance: Lord Elasand Vaeste, his female bodyguard, and the mysterious Master of the Assassin's Guild. The bodyguard, Ranhé Ylir, is the book's heroine, and her love triangle with her employer and the assassin makes up the second romance of the novel. Though Ranhé finds herself at the center of a rather conventional plotline when the Lord she serves is sent on a mission to save the city from invasion, she is herself a rather unconventional protagonist.
Ugly, mannish, and so insecure that the reader's stomach clenches with sympathy, Ranhé buries her vulnerabilities under a layer of daggers and false bravado. She is a mercenary who can't hold onto her coins, and is sometimes too proud to accept them in thanks. This changes when she has a religious vision of violet and is subsequently bewitched into dog-like loyalty to Lord Vaeste. Being ensnared by a man and a cause more intense than herself, Ranhé must face her fears about commitment and her own gender identity. The resulting tensions paint a poignant portrait of emotional vulnerability.
But, "Rainbow is Illusion," warns the book's philosopher. Unfortunately, the author makes this point by resorting to occasional trickery, misdirection, and distortion in telling her tale. The narrator goes unnamed until the end of the book. Information is often withheld from the reader with a wink and a nod. Clues are sometimes revealed so late that mysteries unfold in perfunctory fashion without the reader having had any remote chance of solving them independently. Despite this, exploring the gender identity of a protagonist who is neither wholly man nor woman makes Lords of Rainbow a freeing and enlightening book. However even this enlightenment is distorted by a strange puritanical streak that runs throughout the novel.
For example, the Regent and Regentrix are repeatedly described as perverse and corrupt, but are never actually shown to be such. While it is clear that the characters and the author hold the rulers in contempt for sleeping in late, enjoying parties, and having lots of meaningless sex, the portrait that emerges is fairly sympathetic. Compared to real world historical examples, these two are practically paragons of leadership and virtue. They did not scheme their way to the throne, nor do they lack patriotism. The Regent is simply a weak man, and the Regentrix an oversexed siren. While the author treats issues of gender identity with compassion and dignity, there is a distinct lack of understanding for the sexual identity crisis of the Regentrix. The Regentrix undergoes an emerging awareness of her desire for sexual power exchange as a submissive woman. This alternative sexuality is showcased, given brief insight, and then disappointingly relegated to insanity.
Moreover, the author's focus on color as a symbol for moral and spiritual qualities sometimes leads her into dangerous territory. She tries valiantly to sidestep it by reminding the reader that black is beautiful, but with symbolic villainy predicated on the darkness of the foreigners' skin, racial issues become unavoidable.
In light of these concerns, it would be easy to dismiss the author's themes as trite: it was better in the old days, forget the gods and you are doomed, licentiousness leads to societal decay, white is good, black is bad. But to do so is to overlook the underlying complexity of this fairy-tale. Beneath all the veils, the book asks important questions about gender and beauty, love and acceptance, and the limits of idealism.
Vividly described in rich prose that entrances like a magic spell, Lords of Rainbow will resonate with readers like the stories of childhood. It is not only prefaced with a lovely and accessible poem, it also reads like poetry. Thus, when taken as fable, there is much in this book to love. For in the end, we find a twisted Cinderella tale where an ugly, common girl can be elevated by noble spirit, and a city can be transformed by magic.
Copyright © 2003 Stephanie Dray
Stephanie Dray is a lawyer-turned-writer. She also runs FiranMUX, an internet game based on her first, unpublished novel, Elik's Shadow. She attended Clarion East this past summer and is currently working on her second novel, entitled Cleopatra's Daughter. Her previous contribution to Strange Horizons can be found in the Archive. To contact her, email firstname.lastname@example.org.