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Tales from the Flat Earth by Tanith Lee

By / May 25, 2016 / no comments

I read the first three books of this series last March in the omnibus Lords of Darkness (now out of print) and I loved it immensely. It wasn’t love at first sight though. It was more of an intimate kind of love, one that slowly develops over time, rough patches here and there, perhaps moments of anger and a tinge of frustration. The frustration could have been due to a lack of detail in world building, or a part of the story meant to be clever but came across awkward. Regardless I grew to love the series for what it was and what it was trying to accomplish. Each of the books reads like a standalone so theoretically you can read them all in any order. However, I wouldn’t personally recommend that as there are references to events and people from previous books that you won’t understand unless you had read previous books, though if I’m not mistaken these references are pretty sparse so maybe you could do that.

flatearthAs the title of the series suggests the Earth is flat (well duh). The world has three layers to it: there is the underearth where the demons reside, earth which is the realm of humans, and then upperearth which is home to the gods, who do not care or meddle in the affairs of humans except in very rare instances. Then there is also the kingdoms of the sea but in the sea they have their own laws and are so are not subject to the laws of the rest of the Earth. Many centuries pass over the course of this series. You get to see kingdom’s rise and fall, magical objects of great worth pass from one hand to the other, and unlikely characters become immensely powerful. In this way this series reads more like mythology than a modern fantasy series. It is truly fantastical and mysterious which is something I feel is missing from many contemporary fantasy novels. It is fantastical for the sake of being fantastical. There is a character that shows up throughout the entire series, the lord of demon’s named Azhrarn who loves to visit earth and fuck with humanity. Most of the first book is focused on following is exploits against humanity. He shows up for the second and third books for different reasons but the focus is more on other characters by then.

The best thing about this series is the language. Tanith’s prose has a simple elegance to it that paints a vivid picture in the reader’s head. Thankfully she is not overly descriptive, not long winded in her writing at all. The key is that her words are well chosen, words and sentences ordered in a way that creates a rich and vibrant world. Her writing is very atmospheric. For comparison I think there are a lot of things about Tanith’s writing in this series that are reminiscent of Peake and Vance. Not surprisingly she is a fan of both of those authors. If you don’t believe me then don’t take my word for it.

Here is an example of Tanith Lee’s magnificent writing, a description of the city of Bhelsheved from Delusion’s Master:

Entering at one of the four tall gates, the worshipper found himself on a wide straight concourse, paved on this occasion in mosaics of the most pastel marbles, none of which depicted either scene or pattern, but nebulous swirling, like those of vapors or clouds. Such an ethereal road led from each of the four gates, toward the heart of the city. And on all sides of the four roads stood temples pressed close to each other, as in a mortal city houses would have pressed close. Some of the buildings were massive, pouring up their flowerlike snow domes into the sky, shot with windows internally lit and of a heavenly blue glass, each window itself set in the form of a flower or a leaf or some abstract shape that hinted at supernal reveries. Some of the buildings were delicate and small, alabaster figurines, crystal pinnacles. Colonnades led in and out, their pillars carved like women, or like trees. Trees which were real blossomed inside the city as out. If a wind blew, a snowstorm of petals fell.
At the core of the sacred city, the four roads ended on the rim of the miraculous lake, that turquoise of water which had seemed the seal of the gods’ approval. And up over the turquoise arched four white bows of bridges, making ovals with their white reflections below. The four white bridges met in a diadem of light, the central fane of Bhelsheved, which was not of white stone, but plated over, like a fabulous lizard, with scales of palest gold. The rich kernel of the sweet fruit of faith.
Men declared: “See, it is like the mansion of a god.”

In an interview I read by her she indicated that it is all about characters for her. Having read the series I have to agree with her. She’s a great character writer although not on the same level as Hobb or G.R.M. In the first book Night’s Master the demon lord Azhrarn develops fully and at the end of the book has a very crucial decision to make. I don’t want to spoil anything so I’ll just say he holds the fate of the entire human world in his hands. Azhrarn has become one of my all time favorite characters. In Death’s Master the two main characters are basically symbols but don’t think that just because they are symbols they are mere caricatures. There are some emotionally powerful moments when you really feel for these characters and that is in part because of the symbolism that Tanith employs. In the third book interestingly it becomes less about the characters and more about the prose and the setting. The third book is the most different in the series so far. I’ll get to that later.

Theme: Thematically these books are strong as each one seems to revolve around a particular theme and is focused on that theme for the entire book. The themes make the books more satisfying in the end and help to keep the story focused and makes the story more meaningful. Tanith isn’t trying to force feed a theme to the reader thankfully. The theme is the story, flowing naturally from the progress of the plot and washing over the reader like water.

Plot: For a series that places so much importance on style the plots move rather quickly. The author also does a lot of explaining in order to move through the story quicker which is needed as the books tend to cover huge timeframes, sometimes in just a short number of pages. Each book is also only about 200 pages so that’s another reason the story needed to move quickly.

Now here are descriptions of the three Flat Earth books that make up the Lords of Darkness.
Night’s Master: In the first book Tanith spins a tapestry of interconnected stories in a manner similar to One Thousand and One Night’s. It all fits together like the pieces of a puzzle. We don’t follow any characters consistently over the course of this entire book except for Azhrarn. Instead we move from character to character down through the eons of time. The book is basically about Azhrarn’s exploits against humanity and the consequences thereof as I said before. I wasn’t totally enamored at first as it took me some time to become acclimated to the author’s style. But by the end I had come to really care about what was going on and I was left feeling very satisfied with it. I also grew to really like Azahrarn as a character. He is now one of my favorite characters in fantasy.

Death’s Master: In the second book we follow two priests, who were once friends but later become mortal enemies. They are both symbols, one symbolizing life and the other symbolizing death. The author has a pretty powerful message about the concepts of life and death that is implicit rather than explicit in the manner of storytelling. There are very realistic reasons why each holds the radical views that he does that pertains to that characters past. The past makes these characters who they are. The priest symbolizing life whose name is Simmu goes on a journey to gain immortality and defeat death. The priest that symbolizes death whose name is Zherim is an immortal but not by his own accord, and so this being something he greatly resents he seeks to cause death and destruction in all the lands, later becoming a very powerful sorcerer. It all ends with an epic showdown between these two characters that doesn’t disappoint. I’m not going to write any spoilers here but to me the strength of the message lies in which priest wins this exchange, particularly what that says about the concepts of life and death. This is my favorite of the books in this omnibus and one of my all time favorite fantasy novels. In my opinion it’s the most elegant of the three books, the most focused on characters, and clearly the most atmospheric. The first point is debatable though as all three of these books are elegant.

Delusion’s Master: This one is the most different of the Flat Earth books. Unlike the rest of them it centers on one particular location, the city of Bhelsheved and the time frame for this novel is also by far the shortest. The events of the prologue occur centuries before the rest of the events in the novel with the events of the tower of Babel basically providing the bases for the rest of the book (yes, a lot of originality there). The prologue is also one of the most fantastic that I have ever read by the way (despite the lack of originality). This novel was the most ambiguous and hardest to comprehend of the series, as the story is structurally more complex than the others and the sentence tended to be longer and a bit more elaborative descriptively (this is a good thing) and there were several actions by characters whose significant I did not fully discern. I had to re-read certain passages multiple times and even when I finished it I didn’t fully understand it. I would have been able to understand it better had I been able to skim through it after I was done but unfortunately I had to take back to the library right after I finished it. This is one that I can’t wait to get my hands back on. The theme of this book concerned the concept of love so that was nice.

Conclusion: She is such a good writer it is a shame that Tanith Lee never broke out into the mainstream and become more read by fantasy fans. In an interview I read she said that she doesn’t write what people want to read and that was obviously her problem as far as popularity is concerned. This problem only grew worse for her as her career went on despite being a well established and proven author. At some point in the 90’s she started having trouble getting her work published. Publishers just didn’t want to touch her work even though in many cases they actually thought her writing was brilliant. For the publishers and the big corporations it was all about the money. Just goes to show you how oppressive the publishing industry has become. Tanith wrote what she wanted to write and I greatly respect that. The first work I read by her were actually short stories, of which she has written something like three hundred, and I enjoyed them so I can say she was equally adept at writing in the short format as well at the long format, more proof of her talent as a writer.
The Flat Earth series is at least as enjoyable as the best fantasy I’ve read. The only thing that might be holding it back from being as good as the absolute greatest is lack of details in the world building and the fact that there are some fantasy series’ that are a lot more innovative. All things considered though this is one of the most imaginative series’ I’ve read. I declare that Tanith Lee is the queen of fantasy. Therefore some of her work deserves to be lauded on lists as being some of the greatest fantasy of all time.

Review by Forum Member Moonspawn

About the author

Jon Snow

Believe it or not, Jon Snow really got into reading only after reading A Game of Thrones back in 2002. Previously the only fantasy he had read were Lord of the Rings and many Magic: The Gathering books.While juggling teaching life, he tries to keep up with recently published books.


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