THE SMALL BUT PROUD nation of Azerbaijan stands at the cusp of Asia and Europe, at the crossroads of Turkish, Persian, and Russian cultures. Ever-besieged by its powerful neighbors, yet ever-determined to maintain its independence, Azerbaijan and its capital city of Baku are at the flash points of the most dangerous, influential, and least understood areas of today’s violent and confused world.

Surrounded by the peaks of the austere Caucasus Mountains, washed by the oil-rich Caspian Sea, it is an ancient land where Zoroastrian priests burned their eternal fires and wandering dervishes hypnotically spun in the circles of their mystical dancing. It was the gateway to Europe for Silk Road caravans carrying goods from China and India to the Roman Empire, the historical birthplace of the Nobel Prize, and a gleaming jewel amid the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

It is also the mesmerizing setting for The Orphan Sky, a new debut novel by pianist/composer and Baku native Ella Leya. And the first novel about Azerbaijan to be published in the West since 1937’s Ali and Nino by Kurban Said.

“A Persian gem stolen by Arabs, looted by Turks, lost in the Mongolian empire, tossed between the khanates, and finally picked up by the Tsar’s Russia,” is the way Ella describes her homeland in the pages of The Orphan Sky. Among the novel’s many gripping qualities are its insights into the ancient soul of 20th-century Azerbaijan as Leila Badalbeili, the novel’s heroine, struggles to find her identity in the shifting complexities of life within the social and political currents of Baku.

The Orphan Sky story begins with an adult Leila, now living in California, as she visits an exhibition of Azerbaijani art, sees a painting of Maiden Tower — Baku’s mysterious monument — and recognizes herself in a half-girl, half-bird figure standing on the tower’s crown, ready to soar into the sky. She returns to her lonely villa in Laguna Beach and plays Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto 3, wakening dark shadows from her past.

The story skips back to 1979. Fifteen-year-old Leila is a gifted piano prodigy who dreams of winning international competitions and bringing awards to her beloved country. She is also a loyal acolyte of the Communist Party — and understandably so, since both her parents are dedicated Party members. “By the time I turned fifteen,” she notes, “Communism had become my religion.” When her mentor Comrade Farhad gives her an assignment to investigate a music shop suspected of infecting young people with traitorous Western influences, she does it eagerly, determined to prove her worth to the Party.

But the moment Leila sets her foot inside the music shop and meets its owner — a rebellious Bohemian painter and dissident named Tahir — her life begins to change. Tahir’s jazz recordings, abstract art, deep intelligence, and subversive political opinions expose the hypocrisy and lies of “the kingdom of crooked mirrors” she’s been living in. She falls in love with both the West and Tahir, the prohibited music shop becoming her haven. A perilous choice in late-1970s Soviet Azerbaijan. The process of her transformation from a loyal Party member to a free-spirited artist sets in motion a chain of tragic events, forcing Leila to make the decision that will not only jeopardize her life, but also the lives of her family and people around her: the decision whether to betray her country or her heart.

The characters are vividly memorable — Leila, Comrade Farhad, Tahir, The Immortal, Leila’s parents, her politically ambivalent piano teacher Professor Sultan-zade. Complex and unpredictable, all live within their own set of lies, driven by their own survival instincts, some forgivable, some not, all flesh and blood.

The Orphan Sky is many things — an idealistic coming-of-age story in the stark realities of Azerbaijan’s Soviet era; the haunting romance of a 20th-century Romeo and Juliet separated by families and communism; a cultural treasure chest of Azeri legends and folk tales adding great depth and flavor to the novel. And, reaching across centuries, there is the irresistible linkage between The Orphan Sky and Azerbaijan’s famous Legend of Maiden Tower — the tale of a princess who chooses freedom by throwing herself from the ramparts of the Maiden Tower. “But the sky and the sea traded places, and the beautiful Firebird was born.”

And a rich, illuminating presence of art and music, in many forms, flows through the pages of this novel, bringing color and pulse to the action, places, and the characters. Ella also has Leila think and express herself in musical terms, creating wonderful metaphors such as Comrade Farhad “pounding the podium like a poorly rehearsed orchestra” at the Baku opera house. Or Leila’s every breath sounding “like a cello sawing away against the bouncing-bow contrabasses of her heartbeat.”

As much as Ella’s use of music metaphors delighted me, however, they did not come as a surprise. I first met her in 2005, when I wrote a feature story about her for the Los Angeles Times. I’d just heard her musically intriguing CD, Russian Romance, in which she sings songs in the Russian romance style — an expressive, often sentimental art song form combining lyrics by well-known Russian poets with Gypsy-tinged melodies, a style often described as Russian blues.

And I was immediately convinced that I’d just met a born storyteller — a view that broadened as soon as I heard her other recordings — Queen of Night and Secret Lives of Women.

Little did I know, at the time, that a decade later Ella’s storytelling skills would take prose form in The Orphan Sky, and do so in a second language. Nor did I know, as I began reading, that the music that is so deeply imbedded within her creative soul would also play an essential role in her writing of The Orphan Sky.

Ella explained the linkage best when she told me that “words are my musical notes, formed through melody. I follow its rhythm, syncopations, harmonies, dissonances, climaxes until I reach that sacred place of creative freedom where I can pour my heart out on paper.”

Music icon Quincy Jones wrote that The Orphan Sky was “a compelling Cold War novel that showcases the power of music as a force for change.” Violinist and UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador Maxim Vengerov wrote: “The great theme of music transcending the darkness is at the heart of this powerful novel, with its soaring lyricism rooted deep in moral complexity.” And pianist and author Mona Golabek was equally entranced by it: “Culturally intoxicating […] and dazzlingly original. […] It is Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto 3 meets […] The Kite Runner.”

Golabek’s comparison is perceptive. The Orphan Sky is a timeless story of redemption and destiny, as authentic, disturbing, and brilliant as The Kite Runner. Both stories take place at the same time but on opposite sides of the Afghanistan war. The Orphan Sky’s description of events in Azerbaijan and Afghanistan are at the roots of the contemporary battle between the West and the terrorist forces of radical Islam. When Leila travels to Kabul to perform for Soviet soldiers in the late 1970s, the USSR is at the forefront of the effort to keep the then-emerging forces of radical Islam at bay.

Reading The Orphan Sky made me think of the limitless ability of the human spirit to learn, to sacrifice, and at the end to ascend into skies of dreams. And I’m convinced that — after finishing the final pages of the novel many readers will, like me, be captivated by the desire to visit Azerbaijan, to walk the streets of Baku, described in the novel as only a loving daughter of this exotic city could have done — “An ancient amphitheater descending all the way down to the turquoise of the Caspian Sea, with kilometers of golden sand beaches and boulevards of chestnut and cherry trees” — to climb the stairs of the Maiden Tower, and, standing on its crown, to seek the magical Firebird flying across the “infinite tent” of the wakening sky.


Don Heckman is the publisher and editor of The International Review of Music.