In the broad scope of an epic journey, Ella Leya’s The Orphan Sky begins with a fairy-tale innocence, a picture-perfect world of a privileged child with a rose-colored gloss of naiveté standing between her and communism. Leila is a piano protégé and the daughter of near-royalty in Azerbaijan. Her parents and her community shield her and groom her to be a good communist daughter, an international star, and a comrade who shows the Western world the ideal product of communism. Sent on a mission to test her loyalties, Leila meets Tahir, a boy who knows what truth is.
Leila makes for a remarkable heroine because she isn’t one in any of the traditional senses. She makes choices that lead her down unheroic and anticlimactic paths. She abandons and betrays those she loves to save her own skin, more than once. She doesn’t seem particularly smart, and her innocence is the product of blindness to the world around her. It is not until her story is nearly exhausted with highs and lows that propel the plot forward at suspense-genre speeds that the reader comes to understand that Leila is real. She is not a heroine to place upon a pedestal, but she is a survivor who patches together a soul after it is slowly and systematically ripped apart by her crumbling world.
Author Ella Leya, a composer, native of Azerbaijan, and current Chicagoan, keeps a tight ship. Many avenues open up where she could have dwindled and dove into character history that would have weighed down the story. Leya is a writer made of sterner stuff, and she does not succumb to this all-too-common error. Instead she paints sweeping portraits of the culture and people of Baku in the 1970s. Enough backstory exists to secure the reader’s understanding of the plot, but Leya does not rely on past events to build her characters. She builds them in real time with the pace of her novel. This allows readers to become intimate with the characters, however uncomfortable that intimacy might make them feel.
There are no easy outs in The Orphan Sky. Each corner the plot turns strikes chords of realism, avoiding clichés and making unpopular decisions. These chords resound throughout the novel in a beautifully rendered, dark and modern fairy tale, more aligned with the darkness found with the Brothers Grimm than Cinderella. Leya leaves treasures of folk tales along the way, just a melancholy line here or a brief tale there, that link her characters to a bigger world and a fuller past.
The Orphan Sky carries its sadness well. The dark times do not dim the passages of a nearly pristine light; rather, they brighten them even more. While students of music may rejoice in the soulful descriptions of Mozart and Bach, those who simply enjoy listening along to the rhythms can feel and see Leila playing as well. The passages that describe her ascent to the stage, walking into the spotlight, and, instead of being overwhelmed with fear, owning the fear and the stage, place moments of climax throughout the story that build suspense in chapters that could have fallen flat. The moments of music outlive the moments of heartache, each as poignant and authentic as the next and each leaving the reader feeling full.
Leila and her antihero Tahir each need something from the other. Leila needs to see her music in colors and vibrant scenes. Tahir needs rhythms of jazz to carry his brushstrokes. While Leila and Tahir need colors to play and music to paint, so too does The Orphan Sky need readers to think. The story engages active readers who appreciate an intricate work of literature, and it rewards them with a wealth of suspense and intrigue, not to mention a swoon-worthy love story. Ella Leya reaches to the heart with The Orphan Sky, a grasp that’s not likely to let go of its reader for some time.
February 2015, Sourcebooks
$24.99, hardcover, 336 pages
—Reviewed by Mindy M. Jones