Search This Blog

Friday, June 05, 2015

Tanith Lee And Me

I first discovered Tanith Lee when I was still living at home, working at my first job. The local bookshop, Sunflower, was run by a delightful couple, Brian and Noreen Ormsby. Brian was a fellow spec fic fan. One day, he pushed a book into my hands. "It's a new writer. Read this, it's great!" 

It was Tanith Lee's The Birthgrave. It turned out to be about a woman who has been lying asleep under a volcano for a long time. She doesn't know who she is, not even her own name, but she has powers, as she discovers. She is fleeing from a being known as Karrakaz, until she finds out... Well, I'll leave you to find out for yourself. I loved the way this regular heroic fantasy turned suddenly into science fiction! Would I love it today? I don't know, it has been a long time and I've rather gone off fantasy, or rather, I am very picky about what fantasy I read, much more picky than I was then, but I'm glad I gave that one a go, because I wouldn't have, today. In a day when you don't get this kind of fantasy much under 600-700 pages, it's strange to realise it was only about 300. There were sequels, but it was not at all today's Fat Fantasy Trilogy.

And so began a long and happy love affair with the works of Tanith Lee. I must have read about twenty of her adult books and some of her children's books - I didn't care for the later adult books, and discovered other writers, but some glow like gems in my memory. There were her short stories. I particularly remember the story in which a demon lord can't understand why humans don't love snakes as he he creates cats, which are just snakes that have fur and can be cuddled. Can you think of a better way to describe cats? And there was the story set in India, about a couple who have gone through an arranged marriage. Neither of them is an oil painting. But when their train is stopped in the middle of nowhere, something happens that lets each of them see the other's beautiful soul - and this effect is permanent. They live happily ever after.     

And her delightful anthology of twisted fairytales, Red As Blood. Snow White as a vampire - her stepmother is trying to save her soul. Little Red Riding Hood as a werewolf... Well, read it. 

There was Sabella, which was set on an old-style Mars, the kind writers used to create in the Golden Age of SF. The heroine is a vampire who survives as a prostitute. But she's more than a vampire, as she discovers. She isn't undead, she's born that way, but again - more than she seems...

Does anyone remember Blake's 7? It was a British SF series of the 1970s/early 80s. It still has its fans, young ones as well as old, and a search on YouTube will find some fan made episodes. Tanith Lee wrote two episodes, Sarcophagus and Sand. She became something of a fangirl of Paul Darrow, the handsome actor who played antihero Avon. This led to a delicious novel called Kill The Dead, which became the one Blake's 7 female fans hunted down to read. I have a copy somewhere. The hero, an Avon-like ghost hunter, is called Parl Dro. Yeah. :-) (It's dedicated to "Valentine" - Mr Darrow's middle name)He travels with a thief and musician called Myal Lemyal, who is based on Vila, another character from Blake's 7. It's not her best book, but is great fun. 

The Silver Metal Lover is set in a world in which robots are metallic, but otherwise human in every way. They even seem to follow Asimov's Three Laws, though those are not mentioned - everyone these days uses the Three Laws and forgets, or doesn't know, where they come from. And these robots are better than humans. Humans don't like the competition. So they are recalled, including the beautiful silver man with whom the teenage heroine has fallen deeply in love... That one had me almost in tears and if it doesn't make you at least sniffle, there's something wrong with you. 

But my all time favourite of her writing is the pair of books that have been published under one cover as Drinking Sapphire Wine. This one is set in a distant future in which you can literally change your body to any shape you want. You can be a big hulking man one day and have yourself reshaped as a tiny, beautiful woman the next. If you get killed, you can be brought back, no problems. Your parents might be two men the next time you visit them. You can live a life all for fun if that's what you want. In fact, you're encouraged to do that by the machines who are running the world. The one thing you can't do until you reach a certain age is anything meaningful, like a job. Our heroine - who does occasionally become a man - has become frustrated and wants to do something meaningful with her life - but when she insists on being given a job before her time, she discovers that even those are dull and meaningless, eg pushing buttons that would push themselves if you failed to do it. She does something that finally gets her exiled - and then the story really begins.. 

This is a writer we're all going to miss very much. See, it wasn't just the storylines, which were great. It is the fact that all her books have human beings - or sort-of human beings - with human problems. She didn't write fantasy about an elf, a long lost prince, a couple of dwarves and a sorceress on a Quest. And if she had, it would have been about the people, not the Quest.

If you haven't read any of her work, go and get it(but check the publication date - the most recent are not as good).

 You won't be sorry.


Lan said...

I've sadly never heard of Tanith Lee but it's always sad to hear of an author who has touched a lot of people passing away.

Katherine Langrish said...

Thanks for this, Sue. Tanith Lee's books were never less than striking. I met her briefly at WorldCon in London and was rather star-struck. She was modest and friendly, and it was lovely to be able to tell her now much my daughter had enjoyed her (relatively) recent YA series, Wolf Star Rising - which is excellent.

Sue Bursztynski said...

Thanks for dropping by, Lan! It seems you're not the only one who hasn't heard of her. You're too young, I think. Although she was writing well into the 2000s, she was really big in the 80s. Still worth a look, though.

Sue Bursztynski said...

Oh, wow! You got to meet her? I don't think she ever came here or I would have heard about it. I knew she wrote children's books, but haven't heard of those. Must see if they're available in ebook.