Summer rolls on, and so do the books! Today I’m going to focus on a book that I’m right in the middle of reading: Tanith Lee’s
First published in 1975, it was Lee’s first “adult fantasy” novel, which is a fascinating term that doesn’t get used anymore by publishers and marketing. When you say “adult fantasy” to the average person today they think you’re talking about some kind of pornography. But in the 60s and 70s the term was widely used to indicate works of fantasy that were not children’s books. I guess the term was replaced by “Mature Readers”–or maybe we just grew out of the need to be so specific about the content of fantasy books.
Lee had published a children’s book before THE BIRTHGRAVE, but this was her official debut as a writer of fantasy for adults. You can tell the original publisher (DAW) knew they had discovered something special because this text appeared above the title “To rank with LeGuin, Brackett, Norton, here is…Tanith Lee.” Even as a first-time novelist, she was lightning in a bottle.
THE BIRTHGRAVE is a compelling novel of magic and adventure that showcases the emergence of one of fantasy’s true giants. Tanith Lee has been among my all-time favorite authors since I discovered DEATH’S MASTER in a used bookstore back in the late 80s. That sent me scrambling to acquire the entire TALES FROM THE FLAT EARTH series (of which DM is the second book). I had no idea at the time that she had written a previous trilogy that began with THE BIRTHGRAVE only a few short years before penning the first Flat Earth novel (NIGHT’S MASTER). Now, thanks to the great Vera Nazarian and the TaLeKa imprint of her wonderful Norilana Books, THE BIRTHGRAVE has been re-released in a gorgeous hardcover version.
The striking cover of the new edition is by John Kaiine, Lee’s husband, and the interior includes artwork by the author herself. As much as I love this cover, the exotic imagery and superb visuals of Lee’s prose (even at this formative stage in her career) had me searching out the covers of previous editions. Boy, did I hit the motherload. There were terrific covers by artists such as Ken Kelley, George Barr, and Peter A. Jones, as well as many others. But my favorite image of them all comes from (of all things) the German translation of the novel—a painting of the protagonist by the great Esteban Maroto.
You can tell Maroto did his best to create a fully realized vision of the book’s nameless heroine, who wakes up inside an erupting volcano and slowly rediscovers her past as she travels a world of savage tribes, decadent cities, and the ruins of a vast empire of sorcery. When Lee writes in the sword-and-sorcery mode, she is unashamed and totally committed to it. There is dark magic, demonic forces, cruel sorcerers, lost races, bloodthirsty barbarians, swordplay, romance, and everything else you could want from a fantastic adventure.
Lee’s prose is so gorgeous I often have to stop reading just to re-read a passage and dissect its construction (it’s the writer in me obsessing over marvelous language). Yet the narrative moves and flows, never dragging. The amnesiac protagonist is possessed of miraculous sorcery that seems as natural to her as breathing, and like many of Lee’s books the male/female relationship of the lead characters is complex, paradoxical, and visceral. These characters are DEEP, with many layers. Even Darak, the savage bandit-lord who alternately loves and hates the heroine, cannot be fit into the stereotypical “noble barbarian” role.
Lee’s understanding of psychology and her insight into the human soul, are as important to the story as the battles, spells, and magical visions that make it so mesmerizing. Publisher’s Weekly said the novel’s protagonist was “…as tough as Conan the Barbarian but more convincing.” Take a look at Maroto’s painting (above) and you can see that. I must add that there is far more sorcery and magic here than in any Conan tale, but there is enough swashbuckling and sword-swinging to satisfy fans of the famous Cimmerian as well. This was the mid-70s, afterall, a golden age for sword and sorcery if there ever was one. Yet believe me when I say that this story is a timeless experience, as fresh today as when it was written. Lee is one of the few authors whose work never goes out of style for discriminating fantasy readers.
What usually happens to me when I read a Tanith Lee novel is happening again: I find myself reading slower and slower in order to prolong the experience that is giving me so much pleasure. There are only a few other authors who hit me this way: Clark Ashton Smith, Lord Dunsany, and Tolkien are the best examples. She really is that good, which is probably why she has been called one of Fantasy’s Grandmasters, as well as the Princess Royal of Fantasy. Put simply, Lee is a master storyteller in the best sense of the word, and THE BIRTHGRAVE is immensely inspiring because it was the beginning of a career that would rock the foundation of the fantasy genre. I should add there that the book was nominated for a Nebula the year it came out.
I am so very grateful to Norilana Press for re-releasing not only this true classic of fantasy, but many other volumes of Lee’s out of print works. (I made sure to snap up the first three FLAT EARTH hardcover editions as they were released over the past two or three years.) The next two books in the BIRTHGRAVE Trilogy will also be released by Norilana: VAZKOR, SON OF VAZKOR and QUEST FOR THE WHITE WITCH. (Can’t wait!) There will also be more FLAT EARTH books, including a brand-new one eventually.
I encourage everybody reading this to check out Norliana’s TaLeKa page to see all the fantastic Tanith Lee books they have available, as well as their ambitious list of Forthcoming Titles: http://www.norilana.com/norilana-taleka.htm#current