Monday, June 27, 2011

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Birthgrave

Allow me the indulgence of quoting myself before discussing Tanith Lee's 1975 novel, The Birthgrave:
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.


  1. I enjoyed the first volume of this trilogy quite a bit, the other two volumes featuring Vazkor, son of Vazkor I did not much care for. The only bit about the Birthgrave that I didn't like was the ending.

  2. Tanith Lee, Jack Vance and Clark Ashton Smith - their material is too much icing and not enough cake. Namely, the style gets in the way of the substance too often.

  3. I agree with you assessment of Lee's writing (and to some extent Celt's above), though I am solidly in the "Love" Lee camp. I admit it's not for everyone.

    I also didn't much appreciate the ending of the Birthgrave, which I haven't read for many years. I think I might appreciate it more now that I've been exposed to more pulp fantasy stuff. I don't remember much of the rest of the series, though I own them. It's been a long time since I raided my Shelf of Lee.

    On that note: Tales of the Flat Earth series. Find it, read it, it is my favorite of her works. I just wish more of her stuff was in print.

  4. This was her first novel, and I read it back in 77. Well, I didn't finish it; I threw it across the room. I will also avoid spoiling it here, but the transition of genre in the end left me feeling cheated. I was 15 years old, but felt that she hadn't foreshadowed the ending. It was Deus ex Machina, and it still annoys me 34 years later. I have never read another Lee novel.

  5. I'd begun to wonder if I was the only person who ever read Birthgrave. I read this many years after numbers two and three in the same trilogy: Shadowfire and Quest For The White Witch. These two are among the finest fantasy books I've ever read, although interestingly I don't care so much for The Birthgrave - the pop-Freudian overtones are so thick that the heroine moves through them like molasses. It could just be Lee's typical pathologically inert heroines, though, a trait her male protagonists are for some reason free of.
    Lee's imagery though is gorgeous to the point of delirium: decadent exotic cultures, a Lost Race with godlike psi powers, furious swordplay and sex and slavery (although unlike Mr Norman, not all in the same scene). Ah, Tanith, I love you. I don't like all of her books (the Flat Earth series some reason I quickly found tedious) but for the last two of this trilogy, and The Stormlord plus its sister book Anakire, I could and do forgive her anything.
    IMO there are only a handful of other writers past or present who can match the sheer originality and artistry of her worldbuilding at its best.

  6. @Richard: I absolutely agree with you about the end of The Birthgrave. It was crap. If it had been the first book of hers I'd read I would very likely have done the same. But if it's any consolation, it was one of the first books she ever wrote, and it shows.

    But you might be denying yourself something extraordinary by ignoring some of her other books.

  7. @Charles. Thanks. I'm sure she did improve. Most first novels are weak, but this one got under my skin. I have taught high school English, and I use this novel as an example for Deus ex Machina.

    Still, I prefer Elizabeth Moon's first attempt, Sheepfarmer's Daughter (the Paksennarion trilogy), and Moon's SF novels are even better.

  8. Considering my newfound appreciation for Vance and Smith, i'll need to give Lee a closer look.

  9. Never read it but it's on my list of things to read and blog over the next few months. Her Flat Earth series is great fun and definitely in the Smith and Vance vein.

  10. See, Tales of the Flat Earth stands for me as one of the best attempts to mesh Clark Ashton Smith with heroic fantasy. There's a lot of great stuff to love there- and great ideas which could serve as a backdrop for a campaign.

  11. The only bit about the Birthgrave that I didn't like was the ending.

    That's a fair criticism, I think. The ending smacks a bit of deus ex machina, among other faults.

  12. The only thing I've read by her is Tales of the Flat Earth. That being said, I love that series. I may have to check out, cautiously, Birthgrave.

  13. Frank (and other Flat Earth fans): In a couple of years, she'll finally be releasing the sixth and seventh Flat Earth books, Earth's Master and The Earth is Flat (the latter a short story collection). The current schedule has Earth's Master in September of 2014, followed by The Earth is Flat in September 2015.