Monday, September 14, 2009

Pulp Fantasy Library: Night's Master

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.

That's particularly true of her 1978 novel, Night's Master, which is the first in her "Tales from the Flat Earth" series. The series is so called because they take place in a fantasy realm that really is a gigantic, flat square floating within a sea of eternal chaos. Above the Flat Earth is the Upperearth inhabited by the ethereal, distant gods who have little to no contact with the mortal beings that live below. Beneath the world is the Underearth, which is the realm of demons, who, unfortunately for humans, are not nearly so distant as are the gods.

The novel itself concerns Azhrarn, who is the Prince of Demons, who functions both as its protagonist and antagonist -- such is the conflicted nature of this otherworldly being and his relationship with the human beings he at once despises and loves, as they give meaning to his existence. The book itself is a peculiar one, both in form and content. I've already noted that Lee's writing is rich, possessing a dream-like quality to it, which is perhaps fitting since Night's Master is less a traditional novel and more a collection of episodes in which Azhrarn engages in his task of inspiring wickedness in humanity. There's a dark fairy tale quality to the entire book and Lee is very good in maintaining this quality throughout. As I said, her writing is not to everyone's tastes, but there's no denying that her talent.

Compared to many treatments of Lucifer-like characters, Night's Master is much more subtle and complex. While we're clearly meant to sympathize with Azhrarn on some level, he doesn't come across as a heroic but doomed rebel, a prototype for idealistic revolutionaries striving against irrational tyrannies and I'm grateful for that. Azhrarn is a very unpleasant being and his actions are usually despicable. What the novel does do, though, is provide some insight into what drives the Prince of Demons to do what he does and it's here that I find it most interesting. Far from being a black hat from central casting, Azhrarn is a fully-realized villain -- but villain he is. Night's Master is thus an excellently mythological take on the psychology of evil, set in an interesting world and supported by gorgeous prose. Even if you don't enjoy it as much as I did, I think it's worth reading at least once.


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  2. I don't hate Tanith Lee by any strech, but I've never really been able to get through any of her books either. I've managed to read more of Cook than of her, and it's a similar thing: I just can't connect to the writing for some reason.

  3. "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."

    Spot on. This is exactly how I feel about Lee, inlcuding her treatment of the anti-hero.

  4. I need to read some Tanith Lee. I never have, but I should.

  5. If you find Tanith Lee's fiction somewhat florid, I would point to fantasy by people as diverse as E.R. Eddison and M.A.R. Barker as potentially sharing that baroque character. Not necessarily done with modern sensibilities in mind.

  6. My limited experience with her is that she works best in this format, rather than the full-on novel.

    But I find Night's Master absolutely wonderful and very much an heir, in part, to CAS.

  7. This review is serendipity! :-)

    Not sure if you realize, but on September 1, NIGHT'S MASTER was just re-released after all these years in a definitive edition, by my company Norilana Books:


    Vera Nazarian

  8. I'm a big fan of her work, or at least, her older work. I haven't had much time or money for the kind of voracious reading I used to do. Her writing always inspired magnificent visual imagery. Among my favorites were Day By Night, The Birthgrave, and Electric Forest.

  9. I own a copy of Night's Master but haven't yet read it. I did however first read her novel Death's Master back in the 80's and re-read it several times since. It too has Azhrarn as a major character, but instead focuses on the two main characters and the way Azhrarn stuffs up their lives big time. Must be time for me to read more.

  10. Night's Master is probably one of my favourites, just for the sheer mythic portrayal of Azhrarn, especially with regard to the final conflict of the book (and even the epilogue to that conflict). Superb myth-making with great resonance.

    It's also an excellent portrayal of a Demon Prince in a universe where there is no separate dichotomy between good and evil (in other words he is not The Adversary to some god). He is simply the Lord of Demons, and it is the job of demons to plague mankind. Neither good nor evil (although mankind might think differently).

    [I also enjoyed his appearance (or at least his borrowed likeness) in Will Shetterly's Why Cats Have No Lord.]