Book Review

The Compass Rose, by Gail Dayton


Title: The Compass Rose
Author: Gail Dayton
Publication Info: Luna Books 2005
ISBN: 0373802161
Genre: Science Fiction/Fantasy

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.”
“Why not?”
“There’s… things that should not be spoken of in romance in there.”
“Like what?”
“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.

Comments are Closed

  1. jmc says:

    What an excellent review!  Thanks! 
    -jmc, off to pull this out of the TBR pile.

  2. jmc says:

    Sorry, I meant thanks for sharing.

  3. Keziah Hill says:

    Sounds great! Thanks for the review – one to add to my shopping list (which is getting ever longer).

  4. emdee says:

    I loved, loved, loved this book!  I read most of it in one sitting, waiting all day in a hospital.  It certainly made the time go by and most of the time I forgot I was sitting in a waiting room.  I was so absorbed in the story I would look up and 2 hours had passed.  I have The Barbed Rose in my TBR pile and can hardly wait to get to it.  Great review, thanks for expressing my sentiments about this book.

  5. Taekduu says:

    I loved this book when it came out.  I had been excited about Luna line initially.  Even now I can’t believe anyone associated with Harlequin put this out, I am so used to the secret baby cowboy sheikh millionaire etc.
      Among the things that I really enjoyed about the book beyond the polyamory (nummy Torchay and Obed) and the uh group orgasms 🙂  was just that each of the characters developed in a way that was believable and even the bad guys were well-fleshed out as opposed to being simple caricatures.
      The second book is just as good and perhaps even better for the familiarity with characters and the continued growth, so if you haven’t picked up The Barbed Rose, stop denying yourself it’s bad for your health.

  6. celeste says:

    I was also very excited about the Luna line when it was first announced, but I had mixed reactions to a few of the earlier offerings. This was THE book that convinced me that Harlequin is serious about fantasy fiction—and taking some risks I wouldn’t have expected from the Amnesiac CEO’s Pregnant Virgin folks.

    There are multiple layers to TCR that become apparent on subsequent readings, and I’ve found myself going back through it multiple times, even though I usually don’t reread books.

  7. SB Sarah says:

    Another “woe is me” hardship of writing a review of a book I really enjoyed is that when I go back to the book to reread sections for review purposes, I find myself reading the book over again, and I forget what it was I was looking for in the first place. I had that problem with this review, to the point where I had to put the actual copy downstairs and write the review upstairs.

    I’m glad y’all liked the review! Luna is, from what I’ve seen, an amazing imprint and I love it when publishers push the edge of a genre to explore a whole new venue.

  8. Sara says:

    Thank you so much for this review! I’ve been looking for ages for poly-friendly romantic fiction and, while I might have found it at a better time (I’m so swamped with schoolwork right now that it’ll be ages before I can properly enjoy the thing) I’m glad to have found it at all. Thanks loads!

  9. Darla says:

    Wow.  Plot, world-building, depth (not to mention the hawt secks)?  You’ve convinced me.  Putting this on my to-look-for list.

    And thanks for explaining why writing about a book you loved is so much harder than writing about one you hated.  I was afraid it was just me.  Next time I have trouble, I’ll just send a link to this review to explain why.

  10. smoorman says:

    I think the thing I liked best about the is the polyamory bit is a logical part of the story. I mean, alot of scifi-romances feel like they shoved the romance in and can’t quite make it work. This one, though, everything hangs together. I’m not as nitpicky as alot of y’all seem to be, but I do expect characters to act in ways consistent with the motivations they’ve been given. In this book, they actually do! Also, it didn’t feel like she thought, “What can I do to make this as edgy and racy as possible? I know! group sex/orgasms! That should make it sell!” Sometimes it seems like thats the only reason why some authors do things like that.

  11. SB Sarah says:

    Absolutely, Smoorman. The polyamory and the multiple partner scenarios did not feel at all as if they were thrown in for scintillation and erotic amplification of the storyline. Everything that happens, happens logically and appropriately for the characters – it’s part of what makes the book so good.

  12. Wolf says:

    Personally, I picked up the first book in the Luna series with some skepticism.  I’m a die hard fantasy buff and Mercedes Lackey crossing over into the romance genre almost did me in. But I was pleasantly surprised.
    The only books I haven’t been able to really get into in the series, are Silver’s Edge and Silver’s Bane(Anne Kelleher).
    I’m looking forward to reading the sequal to Compass Rose, The Barbed Rose, as soon as I can get my hands on it. Because you’re right, once you start, it’s very hard to put down because you want to know exactly where they are going and why.

    Read some more of the series, you’ll be pleasantly surpised repeatedly.}:)

  13. Gail Dayton says:

    I love y’all. In a purely platonic fashion, of course. :cheese:  But I’m just so tickled to see that people Get It.

    And yes. If you haven’t read The Barbed Rose, you should. Really.  😉

    Um. Yeah. Thanks for all the lovely words about my words.


  14. dl says:

    I’d passed this book by several times.  Kept hearing good reviews, and finally read it…loved it, loved it, loved it!  Compass Rose is also excellent.  The worst part is waiting for the next (final?) installment.

  15. Nalini Singh says:

    I’m another one who loved this book. (Gail probably still has my gushing email offering to proofread her next ms).

  16. Cool review. Thank you, Sarah, I’m convinced. Payday soon so off to Amazon. Yippee!

    The books I’ve read in the Luna line take a lot of credit for my rediscovery of the fantasy genre. If only they weren’t so hard to find.

  17. embi says:

    Based on that thoroughly rational and non- squee review I ran right out and boutght Compass Rose. It. Is. Lovely.

  18. Jane says:

    I am kind of stupid but I don’t get the whole polyamorous marriage thing.  The 4 of them are married and have group sex? and it is a plot device rather than gratitous hawtness?

  19. dl says:

    Jane…had to work to stretch my brain around that one also, but then it became an interesting part of the plot.  This is fiction, and I read for entertainment.  In reality…can you imagine the catfights?

  20. Candy says:

    Some of my friends are polyamorous, and I have to say, if I had to pinpoint a group as least likely to get into catfights, they would be it. Conflicts do sometimes get incredibly complicated, but I have never met a talkier, more compassionate bunch.

    Not to say that ALL poly people are that way. Just the ones I know.

    Anyway, after reading this review, I know what to get a friend of mine for a going-away present. Whee! I might sneak a copy for my massive TBR pile as well.

  21. Michelle K says:

    Interestingly, I came to Luna from the opposite direction—I’m a fantasy reader, and I’ve been thrilled with *almost* everything I’ve read.

    Although, I have to admit that I’m one of those people who wishes there was less boinking and more bashing about with swords and magic. (Yes. I’m a prude. I admit it.)

    But I’m willing to put up with the boinking because the fantasy is fantastic and the writing stories are so amazing.

    Just in case you wanted a perspective from the other direction.

  22. Nicole says:

    I’ve had Compass Rose on my shelf for a loooooong time now, but this review made me pick it up and finally read it.  So far it’s really really really good and I’m loving the fact that I have the sequel ready to read too.

  23. Mel says:

    I just read the Compass Rose on Sunday.  And yep, it rocked.  So far I’ve liked all the Lunas I’ve read.  They’re definitely doing something right!

  24. Nicole says:

    Finished Compass Rose last night and started The Barbed Rose today while waiting for an oil change on my car.  Thanks for the kick in the butt to start reading this one.

  25. Amy E says:

    Wow.  This one wasn’t on my list at all, and now I can’t wait to go find it.  This never happens to me after reading reviews, but hearing it from a Bitch is like hearing it from my best friend.  If y’all say it sucks, I know it creates a Hoover-esque vacuum.  Now when y’all say it rawks, I can’t wait to experience the awesomeness for myself.

  26. Fiamme says:

    Read the review, and then the book. It’s great.  Thanks for steering me in the direction of a new author.

  27. YAY, Gail!  Her series is awesome.  The poly (and I know poly people, too) is well set up with the finding and the wedding (ahem) layered.  Gail’s use of the Surrender to the Gods concept is an incredible idea to build upon.

    The HQ offices are just a couple of years old and quite business-like, though I found the Luna Editors had Exceptional Luna Art and interesting personal objects… 😉

    And writing for Luna is so freeing.  If my h/h don’t meet quickly, that’s all right.  If he acts like a jerk the morning after they have sex and says This is a BAAAD mistake and takes off (on a flying horse), I can do that.

    If another story’s constaints means the h/h boink only 3 times over a couple of days in the last 3rd of the book, I can do that, too.

    Luna pulled authors from fantasy and romance genres, so there’s a very wide and changing mixture to the stories.  I think of them as Epic Fantasy For Women With Romantic Subplots.  So, for me, I usually solve the romantic conflict first, then the fantasy element problem, then bring my heroine’s character arc to an end, having her realize her fondest dream that she’s fought hard for the entire book.

    I’m very glad you reviewed Gail’s The Compass Rose and liked it.

    Robin (who is behind deadline on her 3rd Luna book, so had better get back to her writing…hmmm, EVIL TO VANQUISH.  Cool).

  28. A different opinion says:

    I’ll be the…unpopular opinion.

    Personally, I felt that this book when I first began to read it, held a lot of potential.  But then, it spiraled downhill right about when the characters got married.  I had no idea that Luna was a division of Harlequin so I simply thought I was picking up a normal, fantasy adventure book.  You can probably tell that I’m not one for Harlequin novels. 

    So I write this not as a romance novel reader but as a reader in general. I felt interested in others’ takes on this novel so I read this review.  It’s…different from how I saw it.  I feel like Dayton had all of the elements for a great story but fell short.  By a lot. 

    I felt like the pacing just was all over the place and the solutions to problems solved with annoying ease.  There really is no conflict within the story—or there is, but it just doesn’t feel as monumental as it should be.  The demon really didn’t do much.  It was seen, it attacked for a paragraph and then it was dead.  I wish that this aspect of the story could have been stronger.  I didn’t feel fear of the demon at all—perhaps because it was barely featured in the story.  There was no foundation for me to fear the demon and believe in its antihero role.

    With the romance part—I enjoy good, romantic elements and appreciate its significance but also in this, I felt as if something was lacking.  Understandably, Dayton is trying to create a new fantasy world but their strong understanding and trust of one another is unbelievable.  Because they all get along so easily so quickly, it’s as if they lose whatever individuality that they had when they were first introduced.  This is another example of plot moving too fast, moving too sporadically just to move the story along.  All stories need the necessary filler and the necessary pieces to weave a strong story.  But I just couldn’t immerse myself into believing that people could do this.

    They give in too easily.  One—two days and they’re happy—the conflict is resolved, case closed.  If they’re truly human characters, it wouldn’t be like this at all.  For me, the only characters that left some impression was Obed, who was barely characterized probably due to more page time in later books and Torchay because he was actually a bit more believable in his actions. 

    Romance needs foundation as well as believable transitions within relationships and there were only convenient strings to piece the love together.  I get that each character was different and that each character did have a history and so on but because they lacked a sincere development character-wise, whatever noble, cool, heartwrenching action they performed fell short.

    The magic, or fantasy portion of this novel sucked.  It’s a pretty plain word to use but it just did.  Dayton made magic too easy.  Yes, Kallista was Godstruck.  I get that.  I felt like things like the ghost calling was really too much and pushing the abilities that were given to her.  Magic was used as a tool of convenience.  At times this is necessary, but in Dayton’s book it was overdone, success reached after a couple of tries.  At no point of the novel did I feel like she was truly truly struggling because the subplots were solved so quickly, the answers given to Kallista on a silver platter. 

    The suspense, the feeling of an adventure or of a real conflict just went over my head.  The romance—while I understand is supposed to be different—was all over the place—figuratively and literally speaking.  Kallista, as the main character, should have been an anchor of sorts like the book states.  Even if she hadn’t been strong, she should have felt real enough to feel for and yet, I felt nothing.  Her inner struggles were voiced but never explained, her pains told but it sounded just like words from a script, never leaving a lasting impression.  She had passion but at the most random times that it just made her character inconsistent. 

    I’m sorry.  I just disagree with this review.  It was not a good, solid book.  It’s easy to read, true, but it falls apart.  The characters lack believable depth and the plot—if there really is one it forgets itself.  If I look at it from a romancy Harlequin view, I’m not even sure if it still redeems itself.  Dayton threw in a few sex scenes, each signifying different emotions and a shift in relationships but lacking good timing I guess.  As a whole, this book is mediocre at best.  The elements for a successful novel are all there and yet, as I said, everything just spirals and spirals.  It was solid to start off and then by the end, I was just looking at a mess.  I feel like I wasted $15.

    If any of you would be kind enough to argue against my points, please do.

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