Sunday, March 5, 2017
The Birthgrave - Tanith Lee
A young woman wakes up under a dormant volcano. She has no recollection of who she is and how she came to be in this place. When she starts looking for a way out of the volcano she encounters the goddess Karrakaz, who tells her she is cursed. Death and misery will follow her wherever she goes, until she finds her 'soul-kin of green jade'. After leaving the volcano she soon finds out that the world outside is violent and brutal, but also that she has powers beyond that of mere mortals. The curse propels her into the world and drives her onward, in search of the mysterious jade.
The story is told from a single perspective in the fist person, which means the reader knows as much of the world as the main character does. By the end of the novel, this is still not a whole lot. Many of the cultures she encounters are mere sketches, history is largely unknown and the limited point of view doesn't offer much beyond the main character's immediate surrounding. It appears to be a fairly standard primitive sword and sorcery setting right until the end of the novel. There, Lee mixes genres and introduces a science fictional element. Although much more explicitly sexual, the sexual revolution had arrived by the time of the writing after all, Robert E. Howard would still have recognized this as a fantasy adventure.
Lee does an awful lot of things in this novel that would drive an editor to despair. The main character does not seem to have a will of her own for instance. Things happen to her and she lets them happen. Sometimes she can be provoked into opportunistically seize control, but for most of the novel, there is no plan, no drive, and no initiative in her whatsoever. Foreshadowing is almost unheard of in the novel, making it appear like a series of more or less random events. To drive the plot forward, Lee resorts to a series of deus ex machina style interventions. The climax of the novel, in which Lee gets her heroine out of a fix by introducing a space ship and then resolves the plot with some dubious psychology, is especially bad in that respect. I am not altogether surprised many publishers turned it down.
But there is that Nebula nomination, the fact that it has been in print for over forty years and the lavish praise heaped upon it by reviewers, authors (a glowing example of which can be found in Marion Zimmer Bradley's introduction to the edition I read) and readers alike. The book must have something going for it. The prose is one thing that stands out. Whether you like it is a matter of taste but keeping in mind that Lee wrote this around the age of 22, it is quite impressive. Her writing is vividly descriptive, something that no doubt won her many admirers.
Another thing that is noticeable about this novel is the female protagonist. In a time where women in sword and sorcery novels were usually little more than decoration, or at best cast in cliché roles, The Birthgrave presents the reader with a woman who is all those cliché roles in one person and moves beyond them. Not that the book is a feminists' dream. Given the heaps of blatantly sexist stuff DAW was publishing in the 1970s under Wollheim himself, that would have been a miracle. There is quite a bit of sexual violence in the book. While the main character doesn't approve, she is not particularly outraged by it either, even when she is the victim herself. Still, her choice of protagonist was noteworthy. Bradley even comments on how female authors often, out of necessity, wrote from male point of views. Lee shows them it is not necessary.
All things considered, I don't think this is a novel that really deserves the label classic. It is a book that had an impact when it was published, but one with so many flaws that I can't really call it a good book. If I compare this with the short story that made me pick up this novel, Lee must have developed considerably as a writer throughout her career. It is a fairly quick read if you let yourself be swept away by Lee's lovely prose and the emotional turmoil that surrounds the main character. For the slightly more analytical reader, this book has little to offer. The Birthgrave will probably remain a popular book for quite a while yet, but I was mildly disappointed with it.
Title: The Birthgrave
Author: Tanith Lee
Format: Mass Market Paperback
First published: 1975