Tanith Lee was an extraordinarily accomplished writer: a prolific author of fantasy, science fiction, and horror for both adults and young adults; a two-time recipient of the World Fantasy Award for her short fiction; a winner of the World Fantasy Award for Life Achievement; a Grand Master of Horror; the first woman to win a British Fantasy Award for Best Novel; and a finalist for numerous prestigious awards. Sadly, many of her renowned books have been difficult to find in recent years; however, DAW books has begun republishing several of these including her Tales from the Flat Earth series beginning with Night’s Master, a World Fantasy and Mythopoeic Award nominee first published nearly forty years ago.
In her introduction to Night’s Master, Lee describes its ambiance as “Arabian-Nights-Meets-Every-Myth-Under-the-Sun.” It is an unusually structured novel comprised of three books with two parts containing three stories each. The two parts in each book are at least loosely connected, and the three stories in each part tend to be more closely connected even though they may not always continue to follow the same character. Despite being a collection of somewhat disparate tales, the end does tie into the first book, and the overarching sub-stories within the novel are connected through the titular character: Azhrarn Prince of Demons, who has a role in each.
As such, it’s not a novel with a clear cut plot or a central main character (though prominent throughout the entire book, the tales are not generally focused on Azhrarn). These stories are fairy-tale-like, filled with sorcerers and magic, kings and queens, priests and priestesses, quests and bargains, and recurring instances of threes and sevens. The characters and their goals are rather straightforward, and not all stories end happily: sometimes perseverance is rewarded, but other times the endings are bittersweet or tragic.
Azhrarn and the other demons reside in the Underearth, but they often visit the Flat Earth while the sun is down to make mischief among the mortals. In Book One, Azhrarn takes on the form of a bird and flies over the earth until his curiosity is piqued by the sound of crying. He discovers a woman, distressed because she is dying and leaving behind her newborn son—although, she may be a little relieved to pass on after Azhrarn shows up and angers her by Immortalsplaining how she should be glad to leave behind the cruel existence of which she speaks and spare her own child the misery of living. However, her son is spared because Azhrarn, struck by his beauty, decides to bring him to his kingdom in Underearth. Once the boy is grown, Azhrarn promises him his love and bestows upon him gifts: the name ‘Sivesh,’ the ability to understand the languages of demons and men, superior skill with the bow and the sword, and protection from death by almost anything—except water, over which the Prince of Demons has no power. The only catch is that if Sivesh ever becomes Azhrarn’s enemy, he will destroy him, as demons are wont to do.
The finely-crafted, beautiful language and the promise of meddling god-like characters drew me in immediately, and I loved Book One. The first part does end rather predictably, but it’s still enchanting due to precisely how it unfolds and the aforementioned gorgeous prose style. The second part of Book One, about a necklace forged from the tears of a flower-born woman Azhrarn created just for Sivesh and the havoc it wreaks among mortals, follows a more original path and is just as captivating (although I could have done without the one or two paragraphs of dwarf/spider sex—yes, you read that correctly).
Book Two begins with a king who fancies himself a god until Azhrarn decides to disabuse him of that notion, but it mainly follows his thirteenth daughter, Zorayas. She’s a gentle girl until three tribulations (warning at the end about these trials for those who may want spoilers*) cause her to turn to the darker arts and she becomes vengeful and dangerous. This book is titled “Tricksters,” and though I preferred Book One overall, I quite liked reading about various characters trying to out-maneuver others: the tale of Azhrarn and the king, Zorayas’ rise to power and cleverness when facing Azhrarn, and the story of Zorayas vying with a man in possession of a giant cache of diamonds.
The third and final book was my least favorite, although it had the advantage of containing the most character development since Azhrarn shows more depth and proves he can be more than a mere troublemaker (but never fear if you’re a fan of devilry—he still manages to cause plenty of destruction!). Azhrarn sets his sights on a lovely mortal woman but makes her life hell after she refuses him three times, and in the process, causes a far bigger problem than he intended…
The biggest technical problem with Night’s Master, in my opinion, is that Lee didn’t seem to trust readers to draw obvious conclusions. She repeated information that had already stood out as important when it was mentioned the first time, and she also spelled out aspects that were quite clear. Perhaps this is just the storytelling style, but I found it jarring since there were several explanations so completely unnecessary that they seemed odd.
Considering it’s not a book with in-depth character development, I was surprised by how thoroughly I enjoyed reading Night’s Master. It’s dark with rich prose, absorbing stories, and tales of trickery, and it features a recurring character who contained more dimension than expected at first glance. Though not without its flaws, I loved it and look forward to more Tales from Flat Earth.
My Rating: 8.5/10
Where I got my reading copy: I purchased it.
This book is March’s selection from a poll on Patreon.
* Warning for anyone who wants spoilers about the more traumatic of these tribulations:
The first of these trials is being abused for her scars and disfigurement and the final one is rape.