The Birthgrave

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Birthgrave [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Tanith Lee, introduction Marion Zimmer Bradley, book 1 of the Birthgrave trilogy, 80s cover by Ken Kelly.

Lee The Birthgrave 80s cover by Ken Kelly

The Birthgrave was Tanith Lee’s first published novel for adult readers, and the first novel of hers that I’ve read. The Publishers Weekly review excerpt in the jacket copy stresses its size, and compares the protagonist to Robert E. Howard’s Conan. But it’s not such a very big book by today’s fantasy standards. At just a little over 400 pages, it’s fairly modest among the doorstop novels the genre has come to produce. 

The acute storytelling might justify the comparison to Conan, but the central character actually couldn’t be more dissimilar. A much closer comparison would be Moorcock’s Elric, who is in many ways a schematic anti-Conan. Lee takes that reversal one step further with the change of gender. For style, pacing, and mood, I found myself more reminded of Gene Wolfe’s multi-volume fantasies — but it appears that Tanith Lee got there first, so I can wonder if she influenced Wolfe.

The protagonist is a nameless survivor of her own cruel, sorcery-wielding race, who adopts different identities in the course of her interactions with humanity. She is obscurely cursed, and brings misery and death to her casual and intimate contacts alike. There is an allegory here, for those who want to read on that level, made especially plain in the anagnorisis of the final twenty pages. (Feuerbachian philosophy, Freudianism, and feminism can each be useful to interpret the message of the story.)

There are a number of passages of hallucinatory vividness, and I found the entire novel quite engaging. The ending is almost too tidy, and I can see why some readers resented its deus ex machina qualities, along with what might seem like an abrupt shift in genre. But at the same time as it imposes that dislocation, the book returns to the business of its beginning in a way that makes it whole.