When the term ‘prolific’ is used to describe a writer, the implication often is that the resulting work will be the kind of enjoyable romp, characteristic of the old pulps. Often this assumption is true and there are many readers who appreciate this kind of book. Rarer is to find a prolific writer whose works consistently have literary merit. One of these writers was Tanith Lee. During her lifetime, she published well over a hundred books, many of which are now being reprinted by DAW.
‘Anackire’ is the second of ‘The Wars Of Vis Trilogy’, the first being ‘The Storm Lord’ and set some twenty years after the first. Unlike many trilogies, it is not necessary to have read volume one. Instead, the reader in immersed into a fantasy world where beliefs are potent and gods lurk just beyond the knowledge of the human antagonists. The intensity and beauty of the prose hide the ugliness of human nature and politics. There isn’t one plot but several running parallel to each other in the same way that the affairs of any group of neighbouring countries intersect at strategic points in their history.
Kesarh is a minor prince of Karmiss who is not content to remain in the lower echelons of the hierarchy and is prepared to bend rules. He is permitted ten bodyguards. He doesn’t bother with names, just gives them numbers and has ten of each number in rotation. Of the Nines is Rem, a soldier occasionally afflicted with visions. When one comes at the wrong time, Kesarh has him flogged then promotes him after an attempt on Kesarh’s life.
When the King ignores Kesarh’s significant victory over a pirate force, the Prince starts his bid for power by gradually eliminating those between him and the throne until he is appointed regent of the King-Elect, who is still a young boy. While it is possible to admire Kesarh’s charismatic rise, his passions are more dubious. This is a world where, at intervals, a red moon rises. Its influence is to enhance lust. His big mistake is to go to the island of Ankabeck, where his twin sister, Val Medra, has gone to take her place in the temple of Anackire. What begins as rape turns to mutual desire but once his sister finds herself pregnant, she hangs herself.
This is the beginning of Kesarh’s downfall. Although her mother is dead, the priestesses bring the child to term. When Rem is given the charge of taking the baby to a safe place, the ship is attacked by pirates and, although he makes it to shore with the child and her wet-nurse, he loses track of them and spends the next eight years searching for them.
The plot also tracks Raldanash’s attempts to protect his domain. He is the son of Raldnor, the Storm Lord from book one, and, as it turns out, half-brother to Rem. Raldanash has many wives This is used as a means to create peaceful alliances with neighbouring states but holds himself apart from them because he believes he must hold himself pure if the gods are to intervene of his behalf. While Kesarh has a desire for power, Raldanash’s is for peace and the care of his people. His latest wife is Ulis Anet bears a striking resemblance to Kesarh’s dead sister and, when he sees her, another element enters the equation.
This is a novel of deception, kidnapping, betrayal and war. The politics is complex but, behind it all, the hands of the gods are at work. The gods of Lee’s novels are often very real and powerful with motives beyond the understanding of most of the humans that people her worlds. This is a reprint from 1983 and before the habit of putting a map in every fantasy novel.
This doesn’t need it though the geography is complex with abutting kingdoms and principalities yet is described in such a way that renders a map unnecessary. This is one of the joys of reading a book like this, the prose is beautifully rendered and the situations have a clarity that careful reading will expose. This is not a light, action-packed novel, though there is a lot going on, but needs to be read in the measured way that it is written. It could be regarded as one of the pre-cursors of ‘GrimDark’ but without the graphic descriptions of multiple deaths.
There are plenty of bodies but the feeling of unnecessarily swimming in blood is fortunately absent. There is also a realism about the plot, some things may feel familiar (remember, this novel was written 35 years ago) but, as with life, the unexpected can and will happen. Don’t expect your favourite character to survive or be unchanged or for all desires to be fulfilled. Tanith Lee delights in the unexpected.
Her writing stands up to whatever scrutiny modern readers want to impose on it. Yes, there are acts between characters that present society now deplores but have been acceptable in ancient cultures, but her people come in all hues, depending on their country of origin and the way she deals with the differences is a reflection of our society. This is also a society where to be gay is acceptable. Whatever your preferences, this is undoubtedly a classic of fantasy by any definition.
(pub: DAW, New York, 2017. 456 page paperback. Price: $ 7.99 (US), $10.99 (CAN). ISBN: 978-0-7564-1111-4)
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