The premise of The Duke in His Castle is that, many generations ago, all the nobles of an unnamed kingdom rose up against the Just King, who punished them by confining them and their heirs to their own castle grounds. He promised that any one of the nobles who learned the secret powers of each of the others would be able to walk free. As a result, the nobles began a tradition of sending emissaries in order to learn each other’s secrets.
The story concerns Rossian, Duke of Violet, who is approached by a strange woman named Izelle, who claims to be sent by the Duchess of White. Izelle brings with her a box of bones and ashes, the remains of a beautiful noblewoman, Nairis. Izelle has her suspicions about Rossian’s power, and the remains will help her test it.
Rossian is portrayed as extremely disaffected, despairing and indulgent of what he believes to be his own madness. While intelligent, he appears never to have attempted to overcome the arrogance and egocentrism of his upbringing, with the result that he reads much younger than his appearance would suggest.
Izelle is described as looking almost like a child or a doll, but her behavior argues for a self-knowledge that makes her read older than Rossian. She challenges and needles him in a childish fashion, yet it is always with some greater purpose and a compassion of which he is mostly unaware. One theme of the book is Rossian’s maturation and Izelle’s place in encouraging it, but Izelle has motivations of her own. She has indeed come for the sake of the Duchess, and for herself. That lack of total investment in Rossian, or even primary investment, makes her all the more engaging.
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What is revealed of the noblewoman Nairis is similarly engaging, and the two women are not set up in competition with each other for Rossian’s affections. This is not to say there’s not chemistry between Rossian and Izelle, and Rossian certainly becomes enamored of Nairis, but it’s clear Rossian’s pre-occupation with the attraction in both cases is not shared, and neither woman is solely defined by Rossian’s reactions to her.
Nazarian is a very lush writer, her prose walking the line between elaborate and overwrought, and arguably crossing it in a few instances. There are repeated descriptions of several characters and nearly every scene change involves detailed description. This can be disconcerting, since sometimes all those details are significant and sometimes not.
Another issue is tense. Nazarian chooses to use present tense even in passages relating backstory, with the result that the chronology of the book becomes confused, which may jar many readers out of the story as they pause to work out what happens when. Using past tense for backstory may have been a better option as it would have been less disruptive to the narrative.
Overall, The Duke in His Castle has some truly lovely phrasing, an intriguing premise, and some strongly drawn female characters. Nonetheless, it could use tightening, and Rossian himself makes a curiously bland viewpoint through which to tell the story, for all it’s ostensibly his.
J. C. Runolfson is a poet and fabulist who posts infrequent book reviews to her own journal.