In my experience, Tanith Lee is an author about whom few have any ambivalence: you either love her writing or you hate it. For myself, I love it, although I'll admit that I cannot take it in large doses, as it's exceedingly rich -- "florid," some might call it -- and I find it very easy to get lost in it without any real comprehension of what I'm reading.I wrote those words nearly two years ago in reference to a different novel, but I think they still apply here. Despite being her debut novel, The Birthgrave reads very much like Lee's later works -- full of mesmerizing dialog and sumptuous description. Had the adjective "dream-like" not been rendered near-meaningless through over-use, I might employ it here, since there is an oneiric quality to this novel, perhaps unsurprisingly considering its subject matter.
The Birthgrave is told in the first-person, from the perspective of a woman who is initially nameless and awakens inside a rumbling volcano after a lengthy slumber with no recollection of who she is and with flashes of a past she does not understand.
"To wake, and not to know where, or who you are, not even to know what you are—whether a thing with legs and arms, or a brain in the hull of a great fish—that is a strange awakening. But after awhile, uncurling in the darkness, I began to uncover myself, and I was a woman."The novel's unnamed protagonist then sets to discover who she is, beginning a journey that, on the surface, mirrors many a sword-and-sorcery tale. One of the things that's interesting about The Birthgrave, though, is the way that Lee co-opts and then subverts many of the conventions of blood-and-thunder pulp fantasy but without making the reader feel cheated. That is, I did not feel as if I'd been lied to -- promised a sword-and-sorcery story and then given something else entirely.
That's because The Birthgrave very much is a sword-and-sorcery novel. Everything one expects in the genre, whether it's mysterious lost races, decadent civilizations, or dark magic are on display here and compellingly so. Likewise, the protagonist's quest is a personal one -- intensely so. It's perhaps in that respect that The Birthgrave deviates a bit from its predecessors. A great deal more verbiage is devoted to the protagonist's inner life than is typical in the genre, though I would argue that that is by necessity given that the central struggle of the novel is her desire to learn who she is. But, as she learns more about both her past and her present, we also learn just how closely Lee has studied the genre and used that study to her advantage.
If I seem more vague than usual in describing the specifics of The Birthgrave it is largely because I do not wish to spoil too much of its plot. I will only say that, in addition to being a superb stylist, Tanith Lee is also very adept at critiquing the genre in which she's working without in the process undermining that genre, a feat at which Michael Moorcock and others often fail in my opinion. The Birthgrave is thus an enjoyable book, for its setting as well as its story and I recommend it highly. It's probably not for everyone, but, even if it's not to your taste, I think it's time well spent nonetheless. Lee is a master fantasist who deserves to be more widely read and discussed.