Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Lee, Tanith

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Working name of UK writer Tanith Lee Kaiine (1947-2015), most of whose work has been fantasy, though she is active also as an author of Horror and Science Fiction. She began publishing work of genre interest with The Betrothed (1968 chap), a short story privately printed by a friend, but started her career proper with several Children's Fantasies. Of these, The Dragon Hoard (1971), her first novel, is a comic fantasy (> Humour) in which an affronted Enchantress compels the Quest-ridden protagonist to shapeshift humiliatingly into a raven at unpredictable moments (> Shapeshifters); Princess Hynchatti & Some Other Surprises (coll of linked stories 1972) puts its cast through various travails; in Companions on the Road (1975) the Companions are the Villains, a trio of hellish Revenants who kill through their control of Dreams as they search for the holders of a magic chalice; and The Winter Players (1976) – assembled with the previous book as Companions on the Road and The Winter Players: Two Novellas (omni 1977 US) – dramatizes the interaction between a young woman and the Accursed Wanderer whom she ultimately redeems. Even in these early works, several characteristic motifs dominate: the Rite of Passage whereby a young protagonist (most of TL's viewpoint characters are young) comes to terms – often via Metamorphosis – with his or her extraordinary nature, and strives for Balance in a riven world; vivid, but indeterminate, Landscapes serving as almost interchangeable backdrops for psychic dramas; and a fine indifference to any moralistic settling of scores, her tales tending to close with Good and Evil characters settling into uneasy equipoise.

TL's adult work began with the first volume of the Birthgrave TrilogyThe Birthgrave (1975 US), Vazkor, Son of Vazkor (1978 US; vt Shadowfire 1978 UK) and Quest for the White Witch (1978 US) – whose ending rewrites as sf what had seemed a Sword-and-Sorcery tale set in a highly stylized Planetary-Romance venue. The first volume stars a woman – born adult but amnesiac (> Amnesia) in the heart of an erupting volcano – who must undertake a long Quest, which includes her death and rebirth, in search of her True Name, Karrakaz, and a solution to the mystery of her birth. The two sequels, which comprise a single narrative, are told from the viewpoint of Karrakaz's son, who is also a healer (> Healing) and revenant and, with his mother (for whom he searches, and with whom he has incestuous sex), a surviving member of an ancient Pariah Elite; together they represent a Myth-saturated rebirth, through their mutual rewriting of the Oedipus story, of a matriarchal Pantheon, but they must also learn to exercise their sexuality (from the first, TL's use of Sex is disturbingly exploratory, and unadulterated by any form of political correctness) and their power in a new and complex world.

The dominant motifs in this sequence persist throughout her work, as in her second series, the Wars of VisThe Storm Lord (1976 US) and Anackire (1983 US), assembled as The Wars of Vis (omni 1984 US), plus The White Serpent (1988 US) – which, in another planetary-romance setting, follows the trauma-beset rite of passage of the half-breed Raldnor, who in the first volume gains but then (like many a self-questioning TL protagonist) abandons the God-role of Storm Lord. His children, in the next volume, continue to dominate the various intersecting races of Vis through an exceedingly complex plot involving incest and internecine strife. The final volume, typically of TL's work, renders complex Realities (seen through a plot involving Love, sex, miscegenation and empire) as a dance-like Agon, whose central point may be that, to be fully human, one must attempt to occupy as many positions as possible on the gameboard of life.

Tales from the Flat EarthNight's Master (coll of linked stories 1978 US), Death's Master (1979 US) and Delusion's Master (1981 US), all three assembled as Tales from the Flat Earth: The Lords of Darkness (omni 1987), plus Delirium's Mistress: A Novel of the Flat Earth (1986 US) and Night's Sorceries (coll 1987 US), both assembled as Tales from the Flat Earth: Night's Daughter (omni 1987) – is set in an Alternate-World version of Earth so deeply sunk in time (> Time Abyss) that it is still flat and still governed by a self-contemplating Upperearth Pantheon. On the platform of this Flat Earth, mortals and Demons from Underearth – the Lords of Darkness – dance out intricate and deadly ballets. Of the three Lords, Chuz – Delusion's Master – is perhaps the most profoundly terrifying, for the two sides of his face (> Mask) present Janus-like contrasts of youth and age, both unbearably vivid; viewed directly he presents a grotesque, toothy, staring Face of Glory, a sight that drives any mortal – and even other gods – insane. He is a Trickster, a bringer of Chaos and a tester of the fragile Borderlands of Flat-Earth reality, and the threat of his presence in the sequence – which comprises novel-length stories, linked episodes, and quasi-independent Fairytales – does much to ironize and (at the same time) give bite to the ongoing proceedings.

It is typical of TL, with whom reversal of stock expectations is almost predictable, that the protagonist of the series should be this mythology's Satan, Azhrarn, and that he should save the world from an all-consuming embodiment of hatred that he himself created by accident. TL's somewhat thorny relationship with the Christian mythos is embodied here in the facts that Azhrarn dies and is reborn to save the world of humanity when the gods (who regard world and mankind as a mistake not to be repeated) stand by and that his motives are mixed: love; a dare by the spectre of a lover he killed; a sheer need for humanity as a punchbag for his whims – all these are present and all are plausible. When Azhrarn exposes himself to the sun and dies, TL's language – as so often at her moments of epiphany – echoes the Oscar Wilde of the fairytales and Salome (1893).

Azhrarn is also the typical example of a tendency on TL's part to identify the hottest of Sex with consensual male ravishment. This is a tendency not confined to her – Storm Constantine and Anne Rice have similar obsessions. In a patriarchal society, it would seem, only men, ultimately, are sexual and noble, so that some women writers may come to regard the only unproblematic sexual representation as sex involving men only.

The Secret Books of Paradys sequence – The Book of the Damned (coll of linked stories 1988) and The Book of the Beast (1988), both assembled as The Secret Books of Paradys (omni 1991), plus The Book of the Dead (coll 1991 US) and The Book of the Mad (coll 1993 US), both assembled as The Secret Books of Paradys III & IV (omni 1993) – centres on Paradys, a City which resembles Paris and which occupies a Crosshatch relationship between this world and the supernatural; the stories set within its Reality-blurring ambience and in various historical periods tend to feature artists and poets and to involve these characters in erotic tangles with Revenants and demons (> Shapeshifters). Paradys bears some resemblance to cities like M John Harrison's Viriconium which crosshatch between reality and Dream, between now and the time of the Dying Earth. The final volume, through the introduction of Alternate-World versions of the city, including one peculiarly savage dystopia, darkens the portrayal of this central concept of urban life as a form of drama. The three narratives contained in The Book of the Mad, one of TL's finest texts, dovetail into what registers as a final reconciliation.

The Blood Opera sequence – Dark Dance (1992), Personal Darkness (1993) and Darkness, I (1994), with further volumes projected – is cast in a Horror mode, with an isolated heroine undergoing sexual torment in a mansion on a moor, a process which is incorporated into her Rite of Passage into an adulthood that seems to involve her becoming a Vampire.

There are several singletons of interest. Volkhavaar (1977 US) is a High Fantasy involving female slavery, Sorcery and Good and Evil. Kill the Dead (1980 US) features a ghost-killer who concentrates on liberating the dead from Bondage as much as on protecting the living – complex reversals of expectation are spun on this material in a short space. Lycanthia, or The Children of Wolves (1981 US) and the much later Heart-Beast (1992) are Werewolf tales; the latter features some of TL's purplest prose – it is a trap into which she is prone to fall. Sung in Shadow (1983 US) tells the Romeo and Juliet story (> William Shakespeare) in fantasy terms. A Heroine of the World (1989 US), among TL's most impressive novels, is set in an Alternate-World version of early-19th-century Europe; it tells the life-story of a woman whose heroism is to become fully human, fully bound to her condition – despite the title, she is everything the Temporal Adventuress is not, for her humanity is earned within the limitations of mortality. The Blood of Roses (1990) reads like a dance, an immense gavotte of Vampires through time and space around the central wound they have suffered, and whose focus lies within a central Metamorphosis-ridden Wild Wood (> Mythago): the wound here is the death of the World Tree. Elephantasm (1993) once again subjects a young heroine to a rite of passage involving sexual abuse: she finds herself exacting the vengeance of the elephant god Ganesha against the English, whose abuse of her mirrors their rape of India.

The contents of TL's several collections generally enact in concentrated form the dream-like spirals of plot characteristic of TL's full-length work, forcing an awareness upon the reader that the "dream" is under artistic control. Collections include: Unsilent Night (coll 1981 US); Cyrion (coll of linked stories 1982 US); Red as Blood, or Tales from the Sisters Grimmer (coll 1983 US) (> Revisionist Fantasy); Tamastara, or The Indian Nights (coll 1984 US), whose concerns prefigure Elephantasm; The Gorgon and Other Beastly Tales (coll 1985 US), stories assembled to make up a fantasy Bestiary, the title story winning the World Fantasy Award; Dreams of Dark and Light: The Great Short Fiction of Tanith Lee (coll 1986 US); Forests of the Night (coll 1989), an impressive retrospective volume; Women as Demons: The Male Perception of Women Through Space and Time (coll 1989); and Nightshades: Thirteen Journeys into Shadow (coll 1993). Of these, Red as Blood recycles in a commercial direction the revisionist insights into Fairytales of Angela Carter, again often combining Slick-Fantasy ideas – Snow White as Vampire – with neo-Christian decadent sentiments of a Wildean kind, for the prince who wakes Snow White is Christ. The Cyrion stories combine some deeply fetishistic explorations of polymorphous perversity and vague androgyny with interesting Heroic-Fantasy detective material.

25 years into her career, TL has encompassed every genre of the fantastic (except hard sf) with supple attentiveness and an ongoing exuberance of invention which transcends – or sometimes swamps – genre constraints. The exoticism of her early work has become part of an utterly assured vocabulary, a royal flush of imaginable venues. In the 1990s, new explorations continue to emerge. [JC]

other works:

YA fantasies: Animal Castle (1972); East of Midnight (1977); The Castle of Dark (1978) and Prince on a White Horse (1982), both assembled as Dark Castle, White Horse (omni 1986 US); Shon the Taken (1979); Black Unicorn (1991 US).

Adult fantasies: Day by Night (1980 US); The Beautiful Biting Machine (1984 chap US); Into Gold (1986 IASFM; 1991 chap US); Madame Two Swords (1988 chap US).

Sf and horror: Don't Bite the Sun (1976 US) and its sequel, Drinking Sapphire Wine (1977 US), assembled as Drinking Sapphire Wine (omni 1979); Electric Forest (1979 US); Sabella, or The Blood Stone (1980 US), an interstellar Vampire tale; The Silver Metal Lover (1981 US), sf; Days of Grass (1985 US), sf; Eva Fairdeath (1994), sf.

further reading: Daughter of the Night: A Tanith Lee Bibliography (1993 chap) by Jim Pattison and Paul A Soanes.

Tanith Lee Kaiine


This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.