The fact that Tanith Lee’s TALES FROM THE FLAT EARTH has been out of print for years has been a blatant injustice done to all lovers of epic fantasy. Now, thanks to Vera Nazarian’s Norilana Books, one of the field’s great masterpieces is once again available to the public.
The individual books of the FLAT EARTH series (each of which is a stand-alone novel) are being released in hardcover and trade paperback on a roughly annual basis, and feature gorgeous new cover treatments and artwork. If you haven’t yet discovered the FLAT EARTH books, I envy you. You are in for a spectacular reading experience.
The first book in this landmark series is NIGHT’S MASTER (1978), which was nominated for a Best Novel World Fantasy Award. It introduces the time-lost world of ancient sorcery where Azhrarn the Prince of Demons and his fellow Lords of Darkness roam the flat world creating mischief, drama, and tragedy across the primeval human kingdoms.
The book is rich with lyrical prose, jewel-bright imagery, dark beauty, and ironic myths. Human protagonists come and go, while the real main character is Azhrarn, who is despicable yet inhumanly handsome, evil yet oddly compassionate, godlike yet flawed, and an unlikely champion of a doomed humankind. Let all would-be fantasy writers savor the flavor of Lee’s sumptuous prose. This is how it’s done, people.
Behold and weep at the sheer beauty of Lee’s accomplishment. Here’s one of my favorite passages:
The palace itself, black iron without, black marble within, was lit by the changeless light of the Underearth, a radiance as colorless and cool as earthly starlight, though many times more brilliant, and this light streamed into the halls of Azhrarn through huge casements of black sapphire or somber emerald or darkest ruby. Outside lay a garden of many terraces where grew immense cedars with silver trunks and jet-black leaves, and flowers of colorless crystal. Here and there was a pool like a mirror in which swam bronze birds, while lovely fish with wings perched in the trees and sang, for the laws of nature were immensely different beneath the ground. At the center of Azhrarn’s garden a fountain played; it was composed not of water but of fire, a scarlet fire that gave neither light nor heat.
Beyond the palace walls lay the vast and marvelous city, its towers of opal and steel and brass and jade rising up into the glow of the never-altering sky. No sun ever rose in Druhim Vanashta. The city of demons was a city of darkness, a thing of the night.
Yeah. That’ s what I’m talkin’ bout. Here’s another great scene from the book:
Men cried to their gods. In the morning they would slay each other, by night, fresh from the battlefield, they raved before unreplying altars. So they came to hate even the gods, and smashed their images and defiled their sanctums. ‘There are no gods!’ they cried. ‘Then who has done this thing to us?’ In the light of the riven mountains, on the shores of the wailing oceans, they did not see the shadow cast on them, the shade of the tree of Hate they had fed. ‘It is the worker of all evil,’ a woman cried in one land, a man in another, ‘the Master of Night, Bringer of Anguish, the Eagle-Winged, the Unspeakable. He has done this.’
“So, as towers fell, they would scream it; when the earth opened and swallowed them down, they would choke out his name. They no longer feared him. They had other things to fear.
The back cover copy does a good job summarizing the book:
Long time ago when the Earth was Flat, beautiful indifferent Gods lived in the airy Upperearth realm above, curious passionate demons lived in the exotic Underearth realm below, and mortals were relegated to exist in the middle. Azhrarn, Lord of the Demons and the Darkness, was the one who ruled the Night, and many mortal lives were changed because of his cruel whimsy. And yet, Azhrarn held inside his demon heart a profound mystery which would change the very fabric of the Flat Earth forever…
The cover of the Norilana editions (from the company’s TaLeKa imprint) feature centerpieces of artwork by Tanith Lee herself within a greater design by her husband artist John Kaiine. There’s also a new introduction by Lee, making these the “ultimate” editions of an all-time classic.
The second book in the series, DEATH’S MASTER (1979) is the one I first discovered way back in the late 80s. It was a life-changing discovery. I immediately went out and searched until I found a collected edition of all three FLAT EARTH books, as well as a second collection of other Flat Earth material. DEATH’S MASTER won the British Fantasy Award for Best Novel in 1980, but I had no knowledge of that honor when I found a used paperback copy in a moldering Lexington, Kentucky bookstore. It was one of the greatest discoveries I ever made in a bookstore, used or new.
The second FLAT EARTH book centers around Uhlume, Lord Death, whose impassive, immortal presence intersects with various monarchs, sorcerers, witches, and heroes. The most fascinating of these is perhaps Simmu, a child left for dead who is abducted by the beautiful Eshva demons and invest with their power. At various times in his young life Simmu transforms his gender from male to female and back again. He has a strange relationship with Zhirem the Immortal, a hapless boy who grows into a dark and tormented wizard obsessed with his own undying nature. There are plenty of other unforgettable characters here, including the unseeing, uncaring, completely non-human gods who pay no attention to mankind whatsoever.
If anything, the prose in DEATH’S MASTER is even more lush and evocative and downright beautiful than the first book. The characters here are more consistently involved with the plot, even as they go through vast and immense changes in personality and physical/spiritual existence. Here’s an example:
The peoples of the sea were magicians. She had told him. It was a fact.
An artificial sun burned over the city of Sabhel, giving it warmth, illumination and color. It was a globe of sorcerous glass, vivid with the miraculous fires that blazed within it. Thirty silver chains secured it to the cliffs that walled in the city, and in the glare and smoulder of it the water was the sunny yellow-green of canaries.
Fish like rubies, opals and jades flocked through the sea-sky of Sabhel to bask in the radiance of the glass sun. Unusual plants resembling marine palms, giant tamarisks and cloud-haired cedars toward the heat and light of it, their stems wound with vines, sea weeds and yawning exotic flowers. Red orchids set flame to the sands and devoured the fish which came to perch on them.
Stealing the draught of immortality from the Well of the Gods, Simmu founds the City of Simmurad, where a population of immortal sorcerers leads a secluded existence of unchanging beauty. Yet Uhlume, Death himself, is bound to find a way through any barriers placed in his way. Uhlume, with his jet-black skin and bone-white hair, walks the world bringing the mercy (and terror) of death to humanity, and unlike Azhrarn he refrains from meddling in the lives of mortals… instead, it is the mortals who seek him, bargain with him, and share his deathly realm when they die. Narasen is his icy mistress, a once-mortal warrior queen who dominates the death-realm with her own schemes of power and vengeance.
By night, the Lord Uhlume strode across a battlefield. It was mostly a quite place, the battle long concluded (as all games, even the best, must finally be), the victors ridden northward with their spoils, only the dead left behind. Mostly quiet. After the battle had come the rear guard; in the dusk the crows had mustered. Now the jackals ran to begin their own war among the heaps and dunes and the piled mountains of speechless and unmoving flesh. Here and there a little patch of fire lit up the blackness, but these haphazard lanterns were dying too. Only the stars gave their fixed, seldom, varying shine. Thick were the stars upon the plain of night, and still, and silent. As if, up there too, there had been a battle and the corpses lay about, save that these corpses were beautiful, and they glowed.
It was the stars showed the battlefield to the Lord Uhlume, and revealed him also, if any were left to be see.
The back cover copy describes the novel well:
Uhlume, Lord of Death, second of the Lords of Darkness, King of Shadow and Pallor, makes an unusual bargain which sets in motion an intricate sequence of events that entangle men and gods, queens and kings, sorcerers and witches, and lowly wanderers. When the secret to immortality falls into human hands, dark magic and wickedness are unleashed, testing the bounds of mortal love and sanity, and questioning the nature and purpose of life itself.
Lee grew up reading the ARABIAN NIGHTS, and these novels are steeped in that timeless middle-eastern flavor. Ancient kingdoms, mythical magic, and tormented heroes are the order of the day. There has never been, and will likely never be, another series like this one. However, we can all thank Norliana for bringing these first two volumes back into print, with more to follow until the entire series is once again complete, and best of all a NEW FLAT EARTH book slated for release in 2014! The title of the new volume will be EARTH’S MASTER, and it will join NIGHT’S MASTER, DEATH’S MASTER, DELUSION’S MASTER, DELIRIUM’S MISTRESS, and NIGHT’S SORCERIES.
What’s more, the TaLeKa imprint is releasing more of Tanith Lee’s exquisite early novels, including the BIRTHGRAVE TRILOGY series, which began with Lee’s first published novel, THE BIRTHGRAVE (1975) — also available now in a brand-new Norilana edition — the SHADOWFIRE series, and the WARS OF VIS series. All of these are must-haves for any fantasy fan’s library of classics.
It’s so great to have someone reviving these fantastic and seminal fantasies. There is only one Tanith Lee and her fantasy work is unrivalled. It NEEDS to stay in print, and Norilana’s TaLeKa imprint is making it happen.
If nobody else has said it yet, let me be the first to say THANK YOU to Vera Nazarian for the TaLeKa imprint. It is an undertaking of vital importance to the field of fantasy literature.
Check out the Norilana site for more info on these Tanith Lee must-reads, and those still to come: www.norilana.com/norilana-taleka.htm
Welcome back, Lords of Darkness…