I have been working on a review for this book for weeks now, in my head, on scraps of paper, in bits and pieces in Notepad and in Stickies (a wee teeny Mac text program that rocks my world) and let me tell you: it is SO much harder to write a good review than a bad review.
For the bad review, I get all pissed off and ornery: I remember how irritated I was reading the book in question, I flip back through the folded pages and I compose some cranky snark about how bothered I was.
For a good review? Man, it looms over me like a huge project, when really it’s only a few hundred words. I keep second guessing myself: what didn’t work? There has to be a few things that didn’t work to balance out all the things that did. Mostly, I want to avoid gushing like a 12 year old at a concert of overstyled 20 year olds singing under the weight of too much hair product.
But with a book like Gail Dayton’s The Compass Rose it’s hard not to gush. When I write a review, I jot down a quick list of what I liked, and what I didn’t. On this review, the list of what I liked is sizeably larger than what I didn’t, and that’s surprising for me because I’m usually not a big fan of fantasy/otherworld books.
I started reading the novel expecting a romance, and found that it was more fantasy than traditional romance. Oddly enough the fantasy-philes on Amazon had their knickers in a twist that there was more romance and sexuality than fantasy, though we all know to take the Amazon reviews with a large, possibly metric-ton-sized grain of salt. Still, my primary question after finishing the book was, “Is this a romance?”
Yes and no.
The Compass Rose is from the Luna imprint, which is a division of Harlequin. I envision an intern’s tour through the Harlequin offices as a trip through each division, with the historical and Regency division all plushly-appointed with a frilly tea parlor and an abundance of cravats on the male editors. The contemporary division has a dance club and a very corporate looking office, and the Blaze division has beds everywhere, because if you’re supposed to have the heroine and hero gettin’ it on within the first 20 pages, I imagine the offices as full of people having sex within the first 20 feet of the front door. But then, I’m perverse like that.
But I bet that the intern’s tour of Harlequin headquarters (which are, of course, in an ivory castle on a hillside) does not include the Luna section, which is probably shrouded in mists and mystery, and is somehow located both in the basement and in the tower peak.
“What’s in there?”
“That’s the Luna offices. We do not go in there.”
“There’s… things that should not be spoken of in romance in there.”
“Polyamory. Multiple sexual partners. Psychic sex.”
“Oh, my God! Can I please work there?”
“No. Your first assignment is to work the tea cart in the Regency division.”
I could not believe that The Compass Rose came out of Harlequin, no matter how adventurous the Luna imprint is. Makes me look at Luna and at Harlequin in a whole new light.
Think I ought to get on to describing the story already?
A lot happens in this book. So much that the words “a lot” aren’t nearly enough. There is more plot in this book than there is mantitty on our website. You hear what I’m saying? Plot, plot, puh-lot. Lots of it.
Kallista Varyl is a Captain in the Adaran army, an army made mostly of women. She’s a specific kind of Captain, though, as she is a wielder of magic, or naitan, who commands several others like her. Each naitan in the Adaran army has a bodyguard, and we meet Kallista just before a battle, inspecting the perimeter of the walled city she, the army, and the other naitani must defend, and outlining her strategy with her bodyguard, Torchay.
Adara has been invaded by the all-male army from Tibre, a country to the north. While the Adaran army bases its offensive and defensive strategies on the naitani and their abilities, which range from lightning throwing to food spoiling, the Tibrans use cannons and weapons and some big ass guns to attack – a battle between the magic and the phallic.
When the Tibrans attack, they reach 90% smackdown of the Adaran defenses, killing all the naitani but Kallista, and breach the walled city with hoardes of soldiers. Kallista calls upon the One Goddess whom they all worship, demanding assistance and decrying the goddess’s willingness to watch her people be slaughtered.
The Goddess delivers: everyone in the Tibran army is killed instantly, save for one man, a warrior named Stone. And after regaining consciousness, Kallista realizes she has saved the city and the lives of the Adaran soldiers around her- and then realizes that she has been Godstruck, and now bears a large compass rose on the back of her neck. And hello, Stone has one, too.
More importantly, Kallista is now gifted with some serious kick ass magical powers, far beyond the lightning magic she had originally.
It has been more than a thousand years since an Adaran woman has been Godmarked, and this development causes a great deal of interest within the army and within the royal circle surrounding the Adaran ruler, the Reinine. Kallista, Torchay, and Stone are summoned to court to discuss the events of her marking, and to discuss what to do with Stone, and the ever-pesky Tibrans to the north, who will certainly try again to invade Adara. Kallista, Torchay, and Stone, along with Aisse, a woman who ran away from Tibran servitude, are then bound together by the Reineine into an ilian, a polyamorous marriage, before they are sent to Tibre to stop the invasions.
That’s a very, very rough sketch of all that happens in this book, and it is hard to put it down and pick it back up again – one, because you want to keep going, no matter what time it is and how cold the bathwater has become, and two, there is SO much complex world building going on that if you put it down for some time, recalling all the intricacies once you revisit the story will be a challenge. Dayton is possessing of some serious world building skills, introducing the kingdoms of Adara and Tibre with gradual detail, so each seems equally real, but without an infodump overload that would assault the reader. While each kingdom has defined influences, from the femnocentric rule of the Adaran culture to the male-dominated culture of the Tibrans, the reader isn’t hit over the head repeatedly with the differences, so that in the end you recognize the forces driving each culture, and the motivations causing the men and women of each kingdom to act the way they do. Further, the exploration of matriarchal vs. patriarchal societies allows the reader to examine the flaws inherent within each, thus lending Kallista’s ilian, with members of both kingdoms, a curious balance of two extreme cultures.
The characters themselves are also well done. Each member of Kallista’s ilian, and more members are added as the story continues, is an individual character, instead of a facet of one element of Kallista’s character. This isn’t polyamory-as-character-device, where each person would reflect and accent a particular part of Kallista’s personality; each member of the ilian is a character in his and her own right, and as such, the book stands alone well but also leaves the reader looking forward to the second and third books in the trilogy – you want to learn more about the others, and to see what happens to Kallista.
The bravery in crafting a polyamorous romance is not to be overlooked, either: mad props to Luna, Harlequin, and Dayton for publishing a romance that is multilayered, multidirectional, and multi-amorous. The concept of an ilian is more than just a group of swingers, or bi-curious folks all humping one another. The ilian is a family with many leaders, and while there are pairings between some members, there are also couplings that occur across and between the established pairs.
The anchor to the ilian, and the story, is Kallista, and she’s marvelous. Sometimes I wanted to smack her for being stubborn, and sometimes I wanted to jump into her shoes because rwor, there is some hot action for her and her iliasti, but mostly I wanted to follow her like Torchay and the rest of her crew to see what happened next.
There were some flaws to the story that I questioned as the story came to an end, not the least of which is the resolution of the “primary” romance between Kallista and Torchay and the answer to how and why some characters were marked by the goddess and why others were not. The resolution of her relationship hinged on Kallista’s inability to relinquish control, though, and it makes sense for her character to stand in her own way until she wakes up and adjusts her attitude.
To return to my earlier question: is this a romance? Yes – it’s multiple romances, and multiple plotlines, and multiple relationships, interwoven and interpartnered so it breaks some of the rules of traditional romance, but also highlights some of the important foundations: a good story of a well-written set of characters who confront identifiable and dangerous opposition to their commitment to one another makes for a fantastic read, and this hybrid of fantasy and romance treats the reader to a very creative, and very sensual exploration of what fantasy romance can be.