Tuesday, August 7, 2012

The Book of the Damned by Tanith Lee

Ahhhh Must Read list your selections so often amuse, surprise and on occasion frustrate me. The K’s had Anna Kavan’s Mercury and the L’s bring me Tanith Lee’s The Book of the Damned. I’ll say right off the bat that I thought The Book of the Damned was more readable and enjoyable than Mercury, but it’s still an odd selection.

Tanith Lee has written right across the spectrum of SFF, she’s a moderately important writer, but I’m not sure why they chose the first book of her Paradys series to represent her on the list. It’s not really fantasy, more gothic horror, but I didn’t make the list, I just read it.

The Book of the Damned is 3 stories, they’re novella or novelette length. The three stories:  Stained with Crimson, Malice in Saffron and Empires of Azure are all vaguely linked by being set in the city of Paradys and in the themes that they deal with.

All of the stories seemed to deal with gender switching, in some cases it was real, other cases imagined and I think there was one actual hermaphrodite.

Tanith Lee uses her words well and carefully and paints a vivid picture with them. Paradys; a dark, alternate version of 19th century Paris, is extraordinarily atmospheric and it’s a wonderful setting for these gothic tales of damned individuals, it’s even possible that the city itself is some sort of hell dimension, it’s certainly devoid of simple enjoyment.

The stories overall seemed however to have very little plot, and I did find myself asking more than once what was the point of it all? The characters are both unlikeable and shallow, so make it hard to engage with them or feel much sympathy for them.

There are apparently 3 more books that make up the Paradys series, but I have the feeling they’re all like The Book of the Damned, and not something that would hold my interest for another 3 books, nor do they have a huge amount of appeal for me.

I kept thinking of two other authors or books while I was reading The Book of the Damned, one was Angela Carter's The Bloody Chamber, the subject matter is vastly different (Carter’s book retold fairy tales in a rather dark way), but the use of words and creation of atmosphere is not dissimilar. It also made me recall The Serpent, the first book of Jane Gaskell’s Atlan series, mainly because of the gender switching, as this was also a key theme of The Serpent, with the main character occasionally altering her gender mentally and emotionally, if not physically.

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