Wednesday, 4 May 2016

Book review: The Secret Books of Paradys volume 3, The book of the Dead by Tanith Lee: Book of the Meh

I will argue that, at her best, Tanith Lee is in the same league of Gothic writing as Angela Carter; multilayered fictions about sexuality and possession and identity, built of startling imagery and metaphor. Unfortunately, The Book of the Dead, the third quarter of the Paradys cycle, is a long, long way from her best.

There are many problems with this book. Paradys, that shadow Paris where vampires and shapeshifters and magic roil beneath the surface, a main character throughout the previous stories, is barely present. Most of the tales here are barely connected to it and, even in those that are, it is the flimsiest of painted backdrops. The stories themselves are generally weak, feeling throwaway and somehow unready, and not even saved by forming together into any sort of thread as had the tales in the previous volumes. The protagonists seem to be involved for no good reason - these are not tragedies where a character brings doom upon themselves by their own greed or recklessness or malice or hubris, more they feel like failed attempts to try for a kind of Lovecraftian random universe - and often the stakes are so low and the motivations so pointless that it is to no effect.

For example, in the story Morcara’s Room we start with an interesting set up. A young woman grows up unusually strong and sure of herself for the time period, self-assured and dominant and, being an only child, inherits the estate. She dresses how she chooses and selects her lovers with impunity. Her downfall occurs the first time a man spurns her, although we are simply told this, not shown it, and in such passing detail that her reaction - to shut herself in a tower chamber and commit suicide - is so melodramatically over the top as to be absurd, even in context of a gothic tale. To compound matters, this is merely the backstory; in the present a traveller comes to the estate to find an elderly brother and sister living in the house, who tell him this story - of their ancestor, her death, that there was a warning on the door “all who enter will die” and the servant who broke down the door fell down the stairs and broke his neck. The cursed tower has been sealed for many years (after a subsequent death for which the siblings bear some guilt) and the denouement is this rather arrogant interloper stating that this was not a curse but a simple statement of fact: all who enter the tower room will die, because everyone dies in the end. The whole thing reads like some very early gothic story you’d study in a literature class and you’d have to give a pass because the once-original ideas had become cliche.

Indeed, each of the stories feels as though Lee is trying her hand at a different era of horror writing, without really committing to it. The segment Lost in the World finds a man obsessed with obscure travel writings of a previous century journeying to Africa to try and locate the hidden valley they mention, finding it, being trapped, and (spoiler) being killed by one of the pterosaurs that inhabit it - although the final image here of his aerial view of what he had taken as a huge, ruined temple is a nice idea, the story as a whole is disjointed and messy, and reads like bad Lovecraft, complete with period casual racism.

Definitely a highly disappointing effort, and I’d probably have chucked this part way through had it not been multiple tales. I hope the final part of the Secret Book of Paradys, The Book of the Mad, finishes on a higher note.


Review originally posted at goodreads