Damaged and dangerous

October 14th, 2013Posted by Nancy


If Andre Norton’s Witch World series opened my eyes to the idea of fantasy fiction that was not aimed at young adults, Tanith Lee’s The Birthgrave blasted apart everything I had thought a narrating hero had to be.   This is one of the few books I can actually remember buying.  My family was on vacation in Ottawa and I went to a large book store downtown looking for something to read.   I was attracted to the cover, to the fact that it was published by DAW, and, most of all, by the fact that the author was female.   At sixteen, I was devouring any book I could find by a female author, because I was already a feminist and because I wanted to see how my own ambitions to write could be realized.

The nameless narrator of The Birthgrave was unlike any hero I had ever experienced.  She was damaged and dangerous, immensely powerful and yet as helpless as any other woman in a male-dominated world, resourceful and still fatally attracted to the very men who would make sure she never achieved her goal.  The world through which she moved was brutal, unforgiving, beautiful, and decadent.  The book is a strange sort of coming-of-age tale as the narrator tries to discover who she is and find the jade she believes will lift her curse.  Along the way, she encounters bandits, barbarians, war, fallen cities, and natural disaster.  She’s not always easy to like.  She is sometimes cruel and ruthless and prey to her own foolish illusions and inexplicable desires – but she is utterly unforgettable.

The story contains some incredible set-pieces: the chariot race in Ankurum, the black city of Ezlann, the hero’s confrontation with Vazkor under the ruined city.  Most of all, there is Lee’s prose.  It is like her hero: cold, sure, passionate, and bleak by turns.  It is beautiful and strange and sent me rushing out to devour anything else she had written.  While I don’t love all of Lee’s work, there are books I return to over and over again and her short fiction is among the best I’ve read.   The heroine of The Birthgrave influenced the characters who later appeared in my short story “A Terrible Beauty is Born” and about whom I threaten to write a novel about if I can ever figure out all the damned plot.

Tanith Lee was in her early twenties when she wrote the book, I was sixteen when I read it and I suspect we were both in the grip of adolescent power fantasy.   But that’s not always a bad thing.

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