DREAMS OF DARK AND LIGHT: THE GREAT SHORT FICTION OF TANITH LEE
I’ve never read a Tanith Lee book that I didn’t like and this was no exception. It’s a retrospective of her first ten years as a writer and contains twenty-three short stories. They all fall under the heading of fantasy, horror or science fiction, yet no two are alike, and even when the subject is familiar (e.g. vampires), she manages to come up with a completely fresh take on it. The prose is wonderful as well – highly descriptive, but with an almost musical quality. There really isn’t anyone else who writes like her. I have to confess, as a would-be writer myself, she leaves me a little in awe.
Some of the stories in the book are based in the past, some in the present and some in the future, but they all have a timeless feel to them. They are filled with evocative images that remain with you long after you have finished reading and characters who are both memorable and well-rounded. When I think about them now, it almost feels like I didn’t read them, but they were actually dreams… voyages into an infinitely inventive imagination. It would be too ambitious to try and cover them all in this review, so I’m just going to focus on a few favorites.
BITE-ME-NOT / FLEUR DE FUR
This is a story that often appears in anthologies and is a great introduction to Lee’s work, because it includes many of her hallmarks – an original premise, a timeless fairy-tale quality, striking imagery, beautiful use of language, etc. It is about winged vampires who hunt the skies like birds of prey. These vampires have an angelic beauty and sing hauntingly as they fly, but are driven by instinct alone and have little capacity for thought. They live in a remote land and have laid siege to a castle, desperate to feed on the blood of the inhabitants. The castle is securely locked up at night, but this only makes them more determined to get inside, and one night, their prince manages it. Unfortunately for him he is wounded in a fight with a menagerie lion and captured. Meanwhile, the Duke who owns the castle has come across a servant who bears a striking resemblance to his dead daughter. He believes his daughter has somehow returned to him and adopts her as his own. Then she encounters the prince of the vampires and falls in love with him, but this is Tanith Lee, so don’t expect a conventional happy ever after love story.
This really is a great story which stays with you long after you have finished it. The characterization is good and it has some nice twists. The themes include love, family, secrets, beauty and power. Definitely a highlight of the collection.
A DAY IN THE SKIN
I’ve picked this story out, because it is the first science fiction one and has a very different tone to BITE-ME-NOT. It is set on a planet occupied by colonists from Earth. A terrible accident has killed off most of the inhabitants, but the technology exists to keep their souls in storage and an arrangement has been in put in place that allows them to take turns inhabiting the few surviving bodies. The actual owners of the bodies are displaced and have to take turns along with everyone else, and the story is narrated by one of them as he is placed into the body of a woman for a day and meets one of his friends in the body of man.
It’s a fascinating concept and Lee handles it well. She does a good job of getting into the head of the main character and does some nice world-building. The themes here include friendship, freedom, technology and survival. I didn’t like the story as much as BITE-ME-NOT, but it definitely shows the author’s versatility.
A LYNX WITH LIONS
This story, which I think may have been original to the anthology, is a second adventure of the character Cyrion, who appears earlier in CYRION IN WAX and in other stories not included in the collection. This time, Cyrion has gone to the aid of the leader of a tribe of nomads who used to be his mentor. The leader tells him he believes his son is planning to murder him, but as Cyrion quickly discovers, there is more to the situation than meets the eye.
It is a tale of magic and demons with an Arabian Nights feel to it which I really enjoyed and which suits Lee’s writing style very well. Lee skillfully brings the world of the nomads to life and really keeps you on the edge of your seat with the twists and turns. Otherness is a key theme here, along with power, loyalty, truth and religion.
MAGRITTE’S SECRET AGENT
This is one of the few stories in the book with a contemporary setting. It is told in the first person and is about an art student who becomes infatuated with a man in a wheelchair after his mom brings him into the shop where she is working to collect an order. The order isn’t ready, so she offers to deliver it to their house, so she can see the man again. She finds out he is unable to care for himself, but can’t get him out of her head and comes up with another excuse to visit him. His mom then tells her a strange story about his conception, which gives her the idea that he might like to see the ocean. His mom is resistant to the idea, but she takes him anyway. I won’t tell you what happens next, as I don’t want to spoil the ending.
The story is named after a real Magritte painting, which is used a framing device and ties in nicely with the surrealist narrative. The writing is wonderful as always and the characters felt very real. Things I especially enjoyed were the way the narrator’s growing obsession with the man in the wheelchair is dealt with and the way the fantastical slowly encroaches on reality.
This is another science fiction story, but the fairy tale quality that Lee is so good at is much more in evidence than in A Day in the Skin. It takes place in a partly ruined city on a planet that has been abandoned by everyone except the title character, who lives on the 89th floor of a luxurious hotel. The hotel is entirely automated and Medra never leaves it, spending most of her time projecting her consciousness out across space. Then one day, she is visited by an adventurer, who is searching for a powerful war machine. The two fall in love and make plans to leave together, only to find that Medra cannot go.
It’s a bitter sweet story about love and duty, which really makes you feel for the main character who has everything she needs to survive, but is consigned to a life of perpetual loneliness. The idea of her living alone at the top of a hotel very much put me in mind of Rapunzel, though unlike Rapunzel, Medra is not rescued from her fate by the hero. The story has a dreamlike narrative which immediately pulls you in, but only gradually yields its secrets. The world building is excellent too. There is just the right amount of detail and images like the abandoned city, the skeletal birds and the hotel with its wedding cake architecture and climbing lizards are among the most memorable in the whole book. All in all it’s a story I would highly recommend.
I wanted to talk about this one because it’s another vampire story, yet completely different from BITE-ME-NOT. It’s about the human servant of an ancient vampire who finds he is close to death and sets out to find someone to replace him. He goes to a café for a drink and as he leaves a young man attempts to rob him. The man is just the kind of person he is looking for – handsome and strong – so he overpowers him and takes him to meet his mistress. The changing of the guard then begins.
The aristocratic vampire in this story is very much in the traditional vein and is even called Darejan Draculas in a tip of the hat to the famous count. It is beautifully written (as usual) and although you anticipate the ending, it keeps you guessing about how it is going to get there. Some of the ideas are reminiscent of the novel LET THE RIGHT ONE IN (and its two movie adaptations), though I have no idea if this is just coincidence or if Lee’s story was an influence. Personally I don’t think this story is as good as BITE-ME-NOT, but I do feel it shows how good Lee was at finding different ways to explore a theme.
If I had to choose a favorite story in the collection, this is probably the one I would go with (after a lot of deliberation). It takes place in a quasi-historical land and is about a woman called Jaisel, who rather than becoming a wife and/or mother as society expects, has chosen a life as a wandering warrior. She likes the freedom, but it is a lonely existence and she often has to put up with being jeered and spat at. One evening, as she is travelling through some mountains in winter, she decides to seek shelter in a convenient town. The gates have been locked for the night, but she is able to bribe her way inside. As she wanders the streets looking for an inn, she meets a girl who has come to collect water from a well. She fills the girl’s buckets for her and carries them back to her house, hoping she might be able to stay with her for the night. The girl invites her in to meet her father, a blind alchemist who specializes in making clockwork devices, and they agree to let Jaisel stay with them. Then as the girl shows Jaisal to her room, she propositions her. Jaisal thinks the girl has mistaken her for a man and tells her she isn’t, but the girl says, “What does it matter? Love is love?” Jaisel is attracted to her, but suspects (rightly) that things are not quite as they seem.
There are lots of things I love about this story – the atmosphere, the air of mystery, the pacing, the clockwork toys and automatons. It’s the characters and their interaction that really caught my attention, though. Jaisal was my favorite, as I love to see strong female characters defying the constraints of a patriarchy, but the alchemist was great too – quirky and a little sinister. I was kind of disappointed that the attraction between Jaisal and the girl didn’t lead anywhere, but can understand why that wouldn’t have worked in the context of the story and felt it was very nicely handled. The themes here include otherness, loneliness, love, family and the concept of life. It’s a story I will certainly remember and heartily recommend.
WHEN THE CLOCK STRIKES
I’ve mentioned a few times how a lot of the stories in this collection have a fairy tale quality to them; this one actually reimagines a fairy tale, namely CINDERELLA. The Cinderella character (who refers to herself as Ashrella) is the daughter of a witch who is attempting to use magic to take revenge on the ruling Duke for murdering her family in his rise to power. Ashrella aids her mother in this and when her mother commits suicide to evade punishment for witchcraft, continues the work in her place. Ashrella’s father remarries and it is the introduction of the stepmother and her two daughters which first alerts us to the CINDERELLA connection. When she reaches the age of seventeen, Ashrella succeeds in killing the Duke and his son replaces him. The famous ball takes place in honor of the prince’s birthday as in CINDERELLA, but the outcome is somewhat different.
It’s an intriguing story which subverts the traditional tropes of the fairy tale. Gone is the goody two-shoes heroine who needs to be rescued from a downtrodden existence by a fairy godmother and ends up being swept off her feet the handsome prince, replaced by a powerful woman of action who is seen to be in control of her own destiny and achieves everything she sets out to. This is not to say that she is entirely likeable, however; she very much loses our sympathies when she punishes the virtuous prince for the sins of his father. All the characters in this story are morally complex, rather than being either good or bad, and no one lives happily ever after. If you like reinterpretations of fairy tales then this really is essential reading.
This story really put me in mind of Angela Carter’s collection, THE BLOODY CHAMBER. It is about a girl called Lisel who receives a summons to visit her fabulously rich grandmother. Lisel hasn’t been in her grandmother’s presence since the day of her birth and doesn’t want to go, but agrees because she hopes to inherit her grandmother’s wealth. She puts on a hooded cloak of scarlet velvet (in true Red Riding Hood style) and sets out for her grandmother’s chateau with some of her father’s servants. They are intercepted on the road by two of her grandmother’s servants, who insist that she dismiss her father’s servants and travel the rest of the way with them. Wolves run alongside their carriage as they go, but they make it safely to the chateau. Understandably the encounter with the wolves makes Lisel uneasy and her uneasiness grows as she starts to spend time with her grandmother, who is not only eccentric, but as it turns out, is hiding a dark secret.
I won’t tell you what this secret is, though I may have given it away with the references to Angela Carter and Red Riding Hood. Instead let me tell you what I like about the story. The imagery is great as always (the wintery landscape, the isolated chateau) and the characters are memorable, especially the grandmother and her beautiful dwarf servant. Again, it reads like a fairy tale, but like WHEN THE CLOCK STRIKES very much subverts the genre. The grandmother is a strong woman who has managed to find a way to escape an abusive marriage and we very much get the sense that Lisel is cut from the same cloth. Spoiler alert – they do not get eaten by the wolves and no rescuing huntsmen is required. If you’re a fan of THE BLOODY CHAMBER like me, then you are definitely going to enjoy this story.
That’s all the stories I’m going to talk about, though to be honest I find it hard to stop, as there were things I enjoyed about all of them. What’s great about this book is you don’t have to read it all in one go, but can just dip in and out of it. That wasn’t what I did, mind you – once I’d started reading it, I couldn’t put it down.
My only real criticism is I don’t think the book is very well-structured, which is obviously the editor’s fault, as opposed to Tanith Lee’s. The stories are simply set out in alphabetical order, which seems a bit random. It also means BECAUSE OUR SKINS ARE FINER is placed at the beginning, when I personally feel it isn’t one of the strongest stories and doesn’t do a very good job of drawing you in. Perhaps it would have been better for the stories to have been chronological, so we could follow Lee’s development as a writer, or for there to have been some kind of thematic grouping. It certainly didn’t spoil my enjoyment of it – it just seems like it could have been better thought out.
Anyway I’m sure you won’t be surprised to hear that my final conclusion is this is a book I would definitely recommend.