My first experience with Tanith Lee was in a rather mediocre science fiction novel recently, a rather short one called Electric Forest. A thinly disguised spy-thriller with Frankensteinien concepts, I wasn't too thrilled about it. However, I decided to continue on with her anyway and explore her fantasy side, of which her Paradys and Unicorn series are highly touted. I began with something a bit off the beaten path - Tales from the Flat Earth. I can unequivocally announce that it is within the realm of fantasy where Tanith's skills as an author shine.
In my younger years, I was enthralled by the works of epic writers and bard style authors. Classics like Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, Milton's Paradise Lost, and even going as far back as Beowulf, were works of art to me that I studied and in some cases attempted to emulate. Another favorite is Thomas Bullfinch, one of the greatest chroniclers and collectors of the Grecian mythos stories. It is him that Tanith's writing style seems to remind me of most.
Tales from the Flat Earth is written in an almost Olde English style. Narrated from afar, it takes on a near-lucid and dreamlike pattern. It tells the myth-like stories that surround three gods - no, demons - of her creation of Flat Earth. It is never said whether Flat Earth is a prequel to the Earth of today - no timeline at all exists really that I could tell unless it lies in another book that will take me back to this land. But the similarities to our own earth in climate, zones and the like would lead me along this pre-Earth path.
Within this novel are three Books which were originally printed separately - one each about a lord of demonkind each with its own specialty. There are gods as well, those of UpperEarth, but these are never truly explained in any detail and seem to be rather a boring lot when they are encountered. The demons of UnderEarth, however, are different. They come up to the mortal world to play their mischief, and in doing so weave about themselves such wonderful stories of lore and myth that build, one on the other, to create a new breed of heroes, heroines and characters of happenstance much like you read about Heracles, Orpheus and the others of the Greco-Roman world.
Opening with Night's Master, the stories of Azhrarn are wonderful. The demons of UnderEarth have the type of powers that mortal men and women can barely comprehend. Monstrous in their actions and deeds, they will also play favorites and careen mortal lives one off the other or into the other demon lords, their "uncousins." The book of Night's Master is one of the more in-depth series, taking you a journey that inevitably leads to the birth of Hatred, end of mankind and the Lord of Night's sacrifice - much like the Bible claims it's own sacrificial lamb - to destroy the beast of Hatred and save mankind. The most interesting aspect of this is his motivation - care does he? Not at all. It's just that without mankind he'd have no toys to play with, no people to torture. And if there are no people, there is nothing to hold him in his place as esteemed and feared. Collective consciousness plays a large role in the minds of the demon lords.
The second book is Death's Master and is by far my favorite. Uhlume is not a typical demon lord - he's woeful, morose and is only there to serve the needs of mankind - the whole collective consciousness ideal again. His book tells of the trials of a man named Simmu, his birthright, and his awesome adventures to quaff the drink of immortality that he stole from the gods of UpperEarth. He makes himself an enemy of Uhlume - and the closure of his time on Flat Earth is truly torturous and probably one of the greater climaxes I've read in years.
Thirdly there is Prince Chuz - Delusion's Master. He pits himself against Ahzrarn, Lord of Night, and between them two they forge the story of a tower, palace to the gods and how in the end madness brought on by Chuz can harm, at least in part, even the protection of Ahzrarn. A wonderful study into the human psyche is what Delusion's Master turned out to be. Prince Chuz works on the principle of strings - a little pull there, a bit more taut here - and snap go the brains. This series was very reminiscent, again, of the Bible's Tower of Babel.
Tales from the Flat Earth is a must-have for any serious fantasy and epic/bard style reader. Magnificent, in-depth and rewarding to read, Tanith Lee shows that her fantasy is by far some of the best you'll find rivaling that of all the masters of modern day; Hickman, Tolkien, Donaldson, Asprin, etc. Much better in the way of fantasy than science fiction, I will be looking further into the Paradys and Unicorn series of hers that I heard so much about.
"Tales from the Flat Earth"
by Tanith Lee
Published by DAW Books, Inc.
Copyright © 1978-1981 by Tanith Lee