There are a lot of reasons myth continues to fascinate humanity—the characters, the lingering moral and cultural value, the occurrence of the supernatural, the nostalgia, and others. It’s fair to say the core humanity inherent to the tales is another strong reason why. Myths simple stories when viewed from the outside, once penetrated they reveal many central characteristics that make us human. Written in 1978, Tanith Lee’s Night’s Master possesses precisely these elements—despite not being set in a world not of this Earth.
Technically a set of interwoven stories, Night’s Master nevertheless has aspects common throughout. Aspects that slowly aggregate into a whole, chief among them is Azhrarn, Prince of Demons, and ruler of the underworld. Humanity his toy, he wrecks destruction and heartache on a whim, but is likewise fascinated by mortals. The opening story telling of his thieving of a mortal boy from the green, sunny overworld, their fate unfurls in classic, mythopoeic fashion.
The boy’s story setting the tone for the book, those which follow tell of a disfigured woman who returns to form but in ways she’d never dreamed, a blind poet who has a remarkable encounter with a snake, brothers who war over a temptress, a most desired necklace made of tears, a soul cloven in two, and many other things. At the outset appearing individual, the more one reads, however, the more they discover how the parts, and not only characters, are interwoven to create something larger. Few writers can do this successfully, but Lee certainly has.
Mortality, vice, beauty, loss, legacy, meddling gods, fate, virtue—many of the major themes of myth are covered by Night’s Master. The fact the stories are set in another world makes no difference, and, in some cases, adds a little something extra, something exotically reflexive—the taste of of myth but in a flavor never before tried. Lee’s use of language lush and beautiful, it perfectly complements the type of story being told, all the while enhancing the stories and ideas and tying character concerns to our own.
In the end, Night’s Master is a beautiful collection of stories that does something few works of fantasy do: capture prime essences of humanity in a secondary world. Readers are buoyed along by the imagery and classic drama, while below the surface ideas regarding the most fundamental aspects of being human toss and churn. The effect something similar to Tolkien’s Silmarillion, Lee’s book also possesses a touch of melancholy, but is described with greater color and hue across a wider variety of scenes.