Tanith Lee is quietly one of the great writers of dark fantasy, and though now passed, still deserving of a wider audience. Walking her own path in a field filled with wannabes, she slowly but steadily built an oeuvre of stories grounded in rich prose, a sensitivity to the workings of the human soul (ill-intentioned, good-hearted, or otherwise), a deep understanding of the power of myth and faery, and a talent for synergizing it all in fascinating stories. 1988’s The Book of the Damned (reprinted by Open Road Media in 2016) is the first in a series of works examining the phantasmagorical depths of the decadent, haunted city Paradys. It remains one of not only Lee’s, but fantasy’s best works.
Presented as stories from a strange city (the subtitle is The Secret Books of Paradys), The Book of the Damned is ostensibly three novellas: “Stained with Crimson,” “Malice in Saffron,” and “Empires of Azure.” Like Lee’s earlier Flat Earth books, however, the tales bleed and seep into one another to create a whole, of sorts. Distinct yet suffuse entities, the characters and stories at each’s core takes one step further toward building in the reader’s mind the city of Paradys.
In “Stained with Crimson,” writer Andre St. Jean is walking the streets one night when a strange man hands him a ruby ring before dashing away. Another with hounds approaching soon thereafter, asking if he’d seen a man running this way, St. Jean’s tucks the ring into his pocket, and answers no. Life only getting more intersing in the days that follow, he soon finds himself head over heels in love with an aristocrat’s wife—his desires seeming to outstrip his conscience as she only emerges at night. Forcing a meeting with the woman one evening, however, changes his mind. Unfortunately (or fortunately?) for St. Jean, it also changes many other things.
In “Malice in Saffron,” a young woman has enough of the abuses of her peasant family and escapes to the alleys and shadows of the city of Paradys. Disguised as a boy, she learns its decaying wonder, of its gangs, and the thriving underworld. Joining a nunnery, she also learns that the abuses of her home have competition. Rogue by night and holy woman by day, eventually something has to give in her dual-identity.
And lastly, “Empire of Azure.” A frame story, it tells of a journalist and their finding of a strange diary. The diary containing the account of one Louis de Jenier, a famous female impersonator, the journalist learns of his strange discovery of a sapphire earring, and the ghost which haunts his apartment. More than a simple haunting, de Jenier’s diary eventually twists itself into the journalist’s life, the ghost transcending the frame of just one person’s life.
In The Book of the Damned, Lee’s exquisite prose guides the reader through stories sensual for the detail of setting as much as character and plot. Erotic without whips and leather, visceral without ostentation, and moving fluidly without skipping the particulars, the book is a gorgeous specimen of writing. But that the consequence and import of the characters’ stories are likewise not empty is where the book finds full value.
In the end, The Book of the Damned is a darkly enchanting trilogy of stories linked by the grotesquely Gothic streets of Paradys and the manner in which gender, spun by the setting, comes back around to influence identity and agency. The twist in spelling twisting not only gender, the city itself becomes ugly opulence, something as much beautiful as sinister—the duels, surrealness, madness, and visions perfectly delimited phantasmagoria. Superb book.
(The word ‘series’ mentioned at the outset, it should be noted that in no way does the ending of the book require purchase of the next. The quality of Lee’s writing may induce such action, however.)