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Tanith Lee

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Standard Disclaimer:

This is a brief discussion of Tanith Lee and, of course, of some speculative-fiction books by Lee.

This discussion and list does not necessarily include every book by Lee: it includes only those books that I both know and like. Just as with the author list itself, omission of a particular item may mean I didn’t think highly enough of the omitted item, or it may simply mean that I have not yet sufficient familiarity with it. (In a very few cases, I have listed some books merely on the strength of my opinion of the author: all such books are clearly marked below, as throughout these lists, with a hash mark (#) before the title so you know what’s what.)

I don’t pretend that this discussion is a deep analysis. My intent is no more than to give you a rough idea of what kinds of tales Lee tells, how those tales are usually told, and what makes them and Lee worthy; in sum, to help you rank Tanith Lee (and the works by Lee listed here) on your personal literary “to do” list.

A Few Words About Tanith Lee

Tanith Lee was, to put it mildly, a prolific author. While various sources give various numbers, her total of novels alone is somewhere over a hundred—and then there are her 250+ short stories—prolific, indeed.

Lee wrote in several modes, ranging from straight science fiction through what is usually called “science fantasy” to outright fantasy, with works for readerships from children through “young adults” to true adults. It is her earlier output that contains the bulk of her sf (and science fantasy) work, from all of which I find only one novel that rises above the “readable” level. (Mind, “readable” is still, in my reckoning, nothing to be despised.)

To my tastes, her excellence—and it is considerable—derives from her fantasy works, especially her several multi-book cycles. Her chief and outstanding virtue is her ability to creat mood, an atmosphere, typically one of languor. One reputable dictionary defines languor as “1. Lack of physical or mental energy; listlessness. 2. A dreamy, lazy, or sensual quality. 3. Oppressive stillness”. I think those senses capture much of her better works to a T. The remarkable thing, to me, is that she does not achieve those complex moods by the cheapshot method of “purple prose”, but rather by careful and purposive writing. It may, at times, approach purple, but it rarely if ever gets to that level. She is an eminent crafter of sentences.

I now turn to a select few of her more important works; to try to note them all would take a web site of its own, which is why there is farther below a full list of what of hers I recommend.

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The “Flat Earth” Cycle

Lee’s breakthrough (at least as I see it) was her “Tales of the Flat Earth” cycle, which eventually ran to five novels (apparently she was at work on a sixth, which was never concluded owing to her untimely death from cancer). The back-cover copy from the first book well describes the premise:

In those days the Earth was not a sphere and the demons dwelled in vast magical caverns beneath its surface. Wondrous cities dotted the land and strange peoples and fabulous beasts prowled the deserts and jungles of the world…a fascinating version of the world as it might have been, a world reminiscent of the Arabian Nights and yet utterly unique.

The individual books in the cycle are each focussed on some one of the “Lords of Darkness”, powerful Demons each the Lord of some particular quality or domain: Night (the Prince and ruler of all Demons), Death, Delusion, Delirium, and presumably a few others (those named here are, in turn, the subjects of the first four books of the cycle). These Lords are basically amoral; a telling quotation runs:

What is any of this to us? Time is endless and ours. Love and death are only the games we play in it.

To get some flavor of the Flat Earth and of Lee’s prose in the cycle, here is a description from early in the first tale:

Down fled the shaft, through the mountains and beneath the earth, and with it flew the Prince of Darkness, Master of the Vazdru, the Eshva and the Drin.

First, there was a gate of agate, which burst open at his coming and clanged shut behind him, and after the gate of agate, a gate of blue steel, and last a terrible gate all of black fire; however, every gate obeyed Azhrarn. Finally he reached Underearth and came striding into Druhim Vanashta, the city of the demons, and, taking out a silver pipe shaped like the thighbone of a hare, he blew on it, and at once a demon horse came galloping and Azhrarn leaped on its back and rode faster than any wind of the world to his palace. There he gave the child into the care of his Evsha handmaidens, and warned them that if any harm befell the boy their days in Underearth would be no longer pleasant for them.

While her manner of telling these tales is exquisite, that is not their only virtue. The setting, the Flat Earth, is itself a wondrous creation, and—as the tales move on—a well fleshed-out one, whose nature the quotations above have, I think, sufficiently adumbrated. The characterizations also are finely wrought: most, nearly all, of the characters are something more than human, or at least quite remarkable humans, but they are plausibly true to the various exotic natures they are given in the tales. These exotics perform what might almost be called a ballet of complex, criss-crossed motivations, which further makes for intricate plots as they do their dances of emotion and consequent actions.

In sum, these tales are a treat, quasi-hallucinatory dreams the reader can float on. They do not always run to “happy endings”, but then neither does life.

The Paradys Quartet

“Paradys” is a sort of alternative Paris; the tales begin in an era such that folk riding horses on cobblestone streets are the norm—maybe the 1500s—then progress story by story to a an era in which telephones are commonplace. But all of them involve supernatural forces, usually dark (and not a little eroticism, too).

These tales may be a bit less exotic than the Flat Earth cycle, but only a bit. Here is a specimen:

The viridian banners by the doors were garlanded with myrtle. This house was black, like a sarcophagus, and the great hall was black, with old charred flags like broken wings drooping from the rafters. But the candles burned and white damask clothed the tables and he led her to sit beside him.

Helise was happy. Her eyes sparkled and everything had become wonderful. They gave her white wine to drink, and on the gallery minstrels sang like angels.

They banqueted on fowl roasted with figs and cakes of flour and sugar, milk jellies, fish served in their armor, doves in their feathers. There were salads of spinach and beans made into gardens, and castles of rice and pine kernels, and almond puddings sweet as the promise of life everlasting.

The folk in this set of tales seem all to be in some curious state of, yes, langour. Their responses to circumstances and to one another seem almost somnolent. And there is a sort of Greek-tragedy sense of inevitability about the unwinding of their various fates.

All in all, the quartet makes for remarkable reading.

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The Venus Quartet

As “Paradys” is to Paris, so “Venus” is to Venice, an alternative version; and in this version, alchemy works, magic works. As with the “Paradys” tales, these too progress through time till the last is actually set in the future.

The tales here are different, of course, from the other “city” series, but share many qualities: the language, the languor, the darkness, the sense of inevitability of dire ends looming.

Here is a sample of the prose, stylistically familiar now:

Aquila was the great lagoon. Beyond, you could see the ocean, in a curve like the smoky iris of a blue-green eye. But Aquila looked leaden, and on the water drifted broken pots, weed that had been netted in, and a dead octopus fishermen were hauling to their hungry boats.

On the shores, and slid on platforms into the water, the buildings were picturesque in their depravity. Barnacles re-enameled the scaling walls. Everything but the lagoon had a green tinge. Even the sun.

Under Aquila lay the church of Maria Maka Selena. A little before noon, when the sun passed over, you might see at low tides the tilted clock face, a hundred feet down, looking up into the sun's eye. Ols silver-leaf, the figures of maidens, all green now, malachite girls under a peridot sun...

One reads these tales not so much from sympathy with the characters in them—though some few are indeed sympathetic—as to see how their various twisted fates will unfold and resolve: sometimes more or less happily, sometimes dreadfully. And that seeing is rewarding reading.

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Cyrion, though packaged as a novel, is actually a collection of short stories plus a novella, all of course dealing with the exploits of the title character, and all tied together by a simple framing device. That device is a man seeking out the famed but secretive hero Cyrion to aid him; he seeks him in places he is thought to frequent, but instead encounters one after another person who is not Cyrion but who has met him, and each recounts his experience with Cyrion. The novella, which wraps the book, is the adventure in which Cyrion, having eventually revealed himself to the man, proceeds to rescue him from her troubles.

The tales are set in an alternative Jerusalem (and environs) in a period we may take as being a few centuries after the Roman occupation—perhaps the Byzantine era, perhaps Muslim, but in any event pre-Crusades.

These tales are exotic in substance, but rather less so in Lee’s usual langour: they are, after all, largely action adventures. Cyrion is the archetypal adventure hero: handsome (very fair-complected with hair “the color of ice”—They say that he resembles an angel” one woman says), profoundly skilled as a swordsman and more beyond (“this Cyrion of yours is elusive. And rather more than merely a swordsman, it would seem. Now he is reported as outriding with some caravan. Now he is outwitting a demon on a mountain…Now he is n Heruzala. There he is in Andriok. Here he is in the desert. Where now? In thin air.”). But Cyrion is no thud-and-blunder swaggerer. He is intelligent and wise (not the same things). He is nonpareil.

Let’s see a sample of the prose Lee uses in these tales:

“Sir,” said the black-haired man, “what brings you to this, our city?”

Cyrion gestured lazily with the ringed left hand.

“The nomads hava a saying: ‘After a month in the desert, even a dead tree is an object of wonder.’”

“Only curiosity, then,” said the man.

“Curiosity; hunger; thirst; loneliness; exhaustion, ” enlarged Cyrion. By looking at Cyrion, few would think him affected by any of these things.

“Food we will give you, drink and rest. Our story we may not give. To satisfy the curious is not our fate. Our fate is darker and more savage. We await a savior. We await him in bondage.”

“When is he due?” Cyrion inquired.

“You, perhaps, are he.”

“Am, I? You flatter me. I have been called many things, never savior.”

“Sir,” said the black-haired man, “do not jest at the wretched trouble of this city, nor at its solitary hope.”

“No jest, said Cyrion, “but I hazard you wish some service of me. Saviors are required to labor. I believe, in behalf of their people. What do you want? Let us get it straight.”

The Cyrion tales are perhaps not quite so powerful as the works described farther above, but they are still literate pleasures.

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Other Tanith Lee Resources

Tanith Lee Resources on the Web

The place to start is Daughter of the Night, which has—among many other things—an extraordinarily rich annotated bibliography, a very model of how such a thing should be done.

Other pages (by no means an exhaustive list) of note concerning Lee include:

There are some interviews on line too: 1994, with Tablua Rasa; 1998, with Locus; and an undated session with Darrell Schweitzer.

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Tanith Lee Resources in Print

There is a book entitled The Hidden Library of Tanith Lee: Themes and Subtexts from Dionysos to the Immortal Gene by Mavis Haut; I know little of it, but there it is.

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Notable Science-Fiction and Fantasy Books by Tanith Lee ****

(For more possible titles by this author, see the “Unrated Books by Rated Authors” page.)

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