Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Night’s Sorceries by Tanith Lee. And, hey, check out that typo in the book title on the cover image! On the same cover it appears correctly in the pull quote. Did that make it into the print run?! It’s even on the Penguin Random House page for the book, as I write this. And this book was published in 2017! Has no one noticed in the interim? Oh no!
This last of Tanith Lee’s Tales of the Flat Earth books consists of seven distinct stories, set mostly in chronological parallel to the novel Delirium’s Mistress that preceded it. Thus it returns to the looser form of the earliest books of the series. The Lords of Darkness and their ladies make occasional cameos among the first five tales of this book, but there is no development of their larger biographies. Lee does expand her fantasy cosmography a little, notably with an adventure on the moon. Among these stories, the ones I found most enjoyable (and which would probably best stand on their own as examples of Lee’s work in this series) were “The Prodigal” and “Black as a Rose.”
Only with the final two stories does Lee take up and extend the ending of the story of Atmeh that she had reached at the conclusion of Delerium’s Mistress. Accordingly, in both form and content, this book feels like a relaxation and a winding down from the climactic antepenultimate volume of the series, but there is no slackening of quality. The human protagonists are a robust mix of types, and the story resolutions vary widely from happily-ever-afters to catastrophic demises. The prose is measured and beautiful, and the plots satisfyingly exercise deep tropes of traditional storytelling without becoming predictable.
The final story of the book is “The Magician’s Daughter,” and the first of its five chapters involved magical eugenics in a way that reminded me of Aleister Crowley’s Moonchild. Where these books generally seem to occupy a somewhat eroticized band of the Dunsanian part of the fantasy spectrum, this story added some of the the style and substance favored by Clark Ashton Smith. Witness the sentence: “None of the windows or doors would give save at the recitation of a particular vernacular rhomb” (240).
I would certainly recommend this book to anyone who had enjoyed its predecessor volumes. Although composed of short stories and novellas with their own plot arcs, it relies on the prior mythopoeia of the other books, and I’m not sure it would serve so well as a starting point. It does bring the full series to an over-brimming richness of super-completion.
Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Delirium’s Mistress by Tanith Lee.
I am not the only one to have remarked the Arabian Nights quality to the nested and proliferating stories in Tanith Lee’s Flat Earth books. But by this fourth volume, the use of biblical tropes seems to have increased to the point where they help to inform the content as much as Scheherazade does the style. Always subverted in the amoral otherworldly context of Lee’s fantasy, incidents in Delerium’s Mistress include her versions of the destruction of the Cities of the Plain (i.e. Sodom and Gomorrah) and the tempting of Jesus in the wilderness, among others.
Earlier books in this series have not lacked for sexiness, but wow. The coition of the undersea prince Tavir with the witch goddess Azhriaz is quite a textual achievement (281-3). This book also plays up the cosmic in impressive sequences like the creation of the three avenging angels (207-12). On the whole, it is the least capable of standing alone among the books of its series, being especially dependent on the events of Delusion’s Master and also often referencing the other two prior volumes. In fact, it knits together the various threads of previous stories so well, that I wonder if Lee can have had this book, centered on the half-mortal daughter of one of the Lords of Darkness, as a planned destination all along.
My suspicions in this regard are also informed by the strong resonance of Delerium’s Mistress with Lee’s first-published novel for adults, The Birthgrave. There is a shared scale and narrative sensibility, and the parallel roles of the protagonist seem to run in a reversed sequence. The philosophical outcomes are much the same, although a significant maturation of perspective is also present in this later book.
In addition to the attractive and appropriate cover art from Michael Whelan, this original paperback edition includes a handful of interior illustrations by Lee herself.
Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Delusion’s Master by Tanith Lee.
The titular character of Delusion’s Master is Chuz, Prince of Madness, but as with the previous two Tales of the Flat Earth books by Tanith Lee, it is the demon lord Azhrarn who is the power at the heart of the story as much as any. The pacing and structure of this volume of the series is closer to the first (that entirely revolved around Azhrarn) than it is to the second book Death’s Master. Again, Azhrarn allows himself to love a mortal, this time with very different consequences.
This book is brimming over with narratives. Lee riffs on legends and folklore from the Tower of Babel to Rumpelstiltskin. There are background tales for various characters (though not for Prince Chuz) and for particular locations. My favorite part of the book might have been the little digressive story of the origin of cats (155-7).
I will be sure to read the remaining two books of this series.
Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Death’s Master by Tanith Lee.
This second of Tanith Lee’s Flat Earth novels is very good, but not as cover-to-cover amazing as the first. The hectic fabulism of the previous book slows down to a pace more similar to Lee’s earlier novels, such as The Birthgrave. Azhrarn, the demon monarch of Night’s Master, is still important in this book anchored by his peer Lord of Darkness Uhlume, who is Death himself. The real protagonists of the book, though, are the ambiguous heroes Zhirem and Simmu.
My favorite part was probably the wonderfully-imagined undersea adventure of Zhirem, well toward the end of the book.
Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Night’s Master by Tanith Lee.
I’ve been slowly working my way through Tanith Lee’s fantasy oeuvre, reading first The Birthgrave and its sequels, mixing in the Wars of Vis (of which I’ve not yet read the last), then Volkhavaar, and now the first of the Flat Earth books: Night’s Master. The style here was most similar to Volkhavaar, which could very well be a Tale of the Flat Earth itself, for all that it fails to insist on any particular larger continuity. But I was most pleasantly surprised by the insanely high story-to-word ratio in Night’s Master. In less than two hundred pages, Lee executes six major plot arcs, all realized with efficient but beautiful language, and still finds time to linger on terrific images.
The title refers to the character who provides the book’s continuity over “many thousand mortal years,” Azhrarn Prince of Demons. He is “one of the Lords of Darkness,” but we never meet his peer or his superior in the course of the many tales in which he figures here. He is amoral, capricious, and cosmically charismatic, ruling over three sub-races of demons from his splendid capital of Druhim Vanashta in the center of Underearth. Often, he fades from view for much of a given story, while the events that he has set in motion work themselves out in the world of humanity. But he is not just a linking device; the book culminates in his special fate, which draws on the full fabric that is woven to that point.
I read the original DAW paperback edition, which features wonderful art by George Barr on the cover and in four or five interior illustrations. There are four more Flat Earth volumes to follow this one, and if Lee was able to keep up this prodigious level of imagination and elegant writing throughout, I will be hugely pleased. I know there was a book club omnibus edition, but this sort of work deserves to be housed in an abundantly illustrated, leather-bound tome. [via]
Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Volkhavaar by Tanith Lee.
Volkhavaar is a splendid little fantasy: a dense, rhythmic tale that barely manages to keep itself in the field of prose, rather than poetry. Pace the jacket copy, I didn’t feel like I was reading a story of “a world far removed from those we know.” It keeps to a highly “traditional,” almost folkloric style throughout, and its plot often runs counter to the sort of expectations programmed by Disney fairy tales. The supernatural elements are drawn in a powerful and believable way. The book is so tightly composed that I wouldn’t be surprised if its twenty-two short chapters were deliberately keyed to the Tarot trumps. [via]
Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews Quest for the White Witch by Tanith Lee.
The end of this final book of Tanith Lee’s Birgthgrave trilogy makes an interesting contrast/complement to the end of the first. Where The Birthgrave ended with something like a deus ex machina that in some ways tore open the narrative, Quest for the White Witch concludes in a way that seems retrospectively inevitable, and completely within the frame of the larger story. Still, as with the first book, I can imagine some readers being outraged by the “twist” of the ending.
The trilogy as a whole defies the usual three-phase structure of beginning-middle-end, which seems to be consistent with the history of its writing, where the first book was likely conceived as a stand-alone novel. The second book is therefore a second beginning with a new protagonist, and the third is a sequel that ties the two earlier ones together. The result is a sort of dialectical progression.
I had remarked that the second book, Vazkor, Son of Vazkor, had a lower level of numinosity than the original novel, but as its protagonist attains near-omnipotence in this third book there is numinosity to spare. There is also a greater sense of historical sweep and the destiny of peoples and nations, not so central but akin to that found in Lee’s Wars of Vis novels.
One of the odd features of this book is the sustained dramatic irony, since the reader of the first volume necessarily knows more about the object of his quest than does the ambivalent antihero Vazkor Junior. In the first half of the book, though, Lee introduces a fascinating set of events that can make the reader question assumptions about the White Witch of the title, thus maintaining suspense and allowing readers to better appreciate the protagonist’s perspective. [via]
Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews Vazkor, Son of Vazkor by Tanith Lee.
This goofily-named book is the sequel to Tanith Lee’s first adult novel The Birthgrave. It takes place one generation later, having for its narrator a man who appears in the earlier book only as an infant. The mood is consistent with the first book, both being in large measure meditations on personal destiny and self-discovery. The level of numinosity is lowered somewhat, though. The juxtaposition of savagery and decadence, with intimations of ancient powers, is all par for the sword-and-sorcery course, but Lee does good work with it.
I wonder how this story would read to someone not already informed by the first volume. This book seems to call out for a sequel in a way that the first did not. [via]