Cover image for The orphan sky
The orphan sky
Leya, Ella, author.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
Naperville, Illinois : Sourcebooks Landmark, [2015]
Physical Description:
356 pages : map ; 21 cm
"Set at the crossroads of Turkish, Persian, and Russian cultures under the red flag of Communism in the late 1970s, [this story] reveals one woman's struggle to reconcile her ideals with the corrupt world around her, and to decide whether to betray her country or her heart"
General Note:
"A novel"--Cover.

Includes discussion questions and an author interview.
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FICTION Adult Fiction Central Library
FICTION Adult Fiction Open Shelf
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Set at the crossroads of Turkish, Persian and Russian cultures under the red flag of Communism in the late 1970s, The Orphan Skyreveals one woman's struggle to reconcile her ideals with the corrupt world around her, and to decide whether to betray her country or her heart.

Leila is a young classical pianist who dreams of winning international competitions and bringing awards to her beloved country Azerbaijan. She is also a proud daughter of the Communist Party. When she receives an assignment from her communist mentor to spy on a music shop suspected of traitorous Western influences, she does it eagerly, determined to prove her worth to the Party.

But Leila didn't anticipate the complications of meeting Tahir, the rebellious painter who owns the music shop. His jazz recordings, abstract art, and subversive political opinions crack open the veneer of the world she's been living in. Just when she begins to fall in love with both the West and Tahir, her comrades force her to make an impossible choice.

Author Notes

Ella Leya was born in Baku, Azerbaijan, and received asylum in the United States in 1990. She is a composer and singer and lives in Laguna Beach, California, and London. The Orphan Sky is her first novel.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

In the city of Baku in Soviet Azerbaijan, in 1979, 15-year-old Leila is a true believer in the Communist philosophy. Her oil-engineer father and her surgeon mother are Soviet heroes, and her life is one of comfort and privilege. She is also a gifted piano prodigy and dreams of winning competitions for the honor of her country and the party. Her naïveté is beyond extraordinary, until her encounter with a young artist who has experienced the dark side of dissidence shakes up her world. The cruelty and oppression of the Communist society have always been there; now she has the eyes to see the truth. Lelia's performances win her fame, but that is not enough to protect her father from a terrible fate. And she ends up betraying the one she loves to save herself. Will a music competition in London afford her a means of escape? Born in Baku, composer and singer turned first novelist Leya successfully depicts the grim realities of her birth city's Soviet era as she depicts a harsh coming-of-age.--Hoover, Danise Copyright 2014 Booklist

Publisher's Weekly Review

Leya, who grew up in the Communist Soviet Union and later defected to the United States, has written a refreshingly nuanced novel of Russia, complete with wonderful classical and jazz music influences. Fifteen-year-old Leila Badalbeili leads a privileged existence as a Youth Communist Party member in 1979 Baku, the capital of Soviet Azerbaijan. Her manipulative leader, Comrade Farhad, assigns her to spy on a music shop owned by a suspected American plant. Meantime, her redoubtable music teacher, Professor Sultan-zade, stresses that Leila's prodigious talent for playing the piano should remain her first priority. The music shop owner, Tahir Mukhtarov, denies he's a secret agent but introduces Leila to so-called decadent Western society while exposing the hypocrisy and corruption underlying her beloved Communist ideals. She falls in love with Tahir, her "Aladdin," as the safe, idyllic world of her parents crumbles away and she is forced to grow up in order to survive in "the kingdom of crooked mirrors." The author deftly captures the paranoia and isolation of Red Russia. Leya's immersive novel speaks with authenticity and should entertain fans of smart Cold War espionage fiction. Agent: Jeff Kleinman, Folio Literary Management. (Feb.) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

Library Journal Review

Growing up in Azerbaijan, 15-year-old Leila has experienced a life steeped in communism, from her grandfather's role as a Red Commissar to being a member of the Youth League of the Communist Party. When Leila is approached by the charming and attractive Comrade Farhad, she is eager to prove her worth by accepting his challenge to spy on the owner of a music store. Leila is also a renowned pianist with dreams of representing Azerbaijan in international competition. But the task becomes complicated when she is swept away by both melodies of foreign music and the mysterious anticommunist owner, Tahir. The stories and sounds place our protagonist in a tangled web of conflicted emotions, torn between her growing feelings for Tahir and her faltering confidence in the government. In addition, Leila is facing pressure to marry by family members trying to contain their own demons. VERDICT The author's background in music and understanding of life in late 1970s Azerbaijan is evident in this debut novel. The vivid details of the setting and music will engage readers who otherwise might not have knowledge of the country and its history at the crossroads between Europe and Asia. A strong choice for readers of historical fiction who are deeply interested in the Middle East and musical detail.-Madeline Dahlman, Deerfield P.L., IL (c) Copyright 2014. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Chapter 1

California, June 2002

Music seemed to flow out of the painting. Piano arpeggios in scarlet layers. Violin pizzicati in gold and silver brushstrokes. A dark D minor progression of chords sweeping by, trailed by a velvety soft harmony in white. Flutes spilling nostalgic blues and violets into the ever-changing palette of Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto no. 3.

I could see and hear music again; I could surrender to its colors and passions. Something I hadn't been able to experience in twenty years. Since I buried my heart in the past. Since the sea of my destiny took me far away from the land of my childhood and washed me ashore, an empty shell without the trace of a pearl.

The painting was exhibited at the Pacific Design Center in Los Angeles, on loan from the National Art Museum of Azerbaijan. The Times art critic praised it effusively in his article:

The application of broken colors, mineral-based pigments, and silver; the dramatic Caravaggio-like shift from dark to light; the mystical objects depicted in the tradition of ancient Persian miniatures-all these induce an extraordinary emotional effect. The painting-signed Maiden Tower-is a true masterpiece, created by an artist who possesses brilliant technique and unconstrained imagination. And what everyone who's seen it wants to know is this: Who is this great master?

I knew. The moment I entered the showroom and saw the canvas, I knew.

Maiden Tower, obscured by the large crowd of spectators, dazzled by the relentless camera flashes, rose from the darkness of the stormy sea, fires breaking out of its sliver-like windows. A lonely princess-half human, half bird-standing on its crown, her wings reaching into the dome of the wakening sky.

And, appearing from behind the clouds, drowned in Caravaggio's light, the face of a girl.

My face.

Many years ago, I sat for Tahir in a dingy, dark Kabul hotel room. With the roar and the flashes of artillery tearing up the sky outside. With the moon-the only source of light-peeking in through the grimy window. I can still smell the paint, trace Tahir's strokes in the air. Painfully familiar, even after all this time.

A group of visitors, obviously VIP, approached, led by a short, stocky woman in a pink Chanel suit. I'd seen her before. The editor of a glossy magazine, Azerbaijan Today, published here in Los Angeles, and the curator of every Azeri event in America. She cleared space for her group, positioned herself firmly on her crimson stilettos, and began to speak in heavily accented English:

"Ten thousand years ago, the evil Shah of Darkness conquered the Land of Azerbaijan and ordered the building of a tower from the bottom of the Caspian Sea. When the tower reached the sky, every maiden was taken from her parents and locked inside to wait for the night of her wedding to the Shah. Darkness swallowed our land for many years until one morning when birdsong wakened the people of Azerbaijan. Fluttering vermilion feathers, the Firebird soared over Maiden Tower, leading the sun back to its rightful place in the firmament of the sky."

The Legend of Maiden Tower-a tale from my childhood promising a triumphal finale at the end of a long struggle. Encouraging one to stand up to darkness and strive to reach for the skies. Something I had failed to do.

It was after five p.m. when I pulled onto the southbound 405 Freeway, together with the thousands of Angelenos heading back to their safe enclaves. Mine was Laguna Beach, a quaint California village of fishermen, artists, and jet-setters, lost between sunburned rocky canyons and the blue infinity of the Pacific Ocean. An ideal escape for someone running from the past.

I opened the door to my lonely villa and went to my spare room, empty except for the baby grand Bösendorfer buried in the corner under a thick cloak of dust.

How long had it been since I'd even touched it?

I wiped off the dust, lifted the lid, and stroked the keys, invading the mournful silence of the black-and-white keyboard. Playing the melody of the first theme from "Allegro ma non tanto." Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto no. 3.

Wakening the shadows.

Excerpted from The Orphan Sky by Ella Leya All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.