Sometime in 1978 in a mall bookstore in Farmington, New Mexico, I noticed the cover of a paperback in the SF&F section:
The cover artist was George Barr. The book was ‘Night’s Master’, the first of the Flat Earth series. The author was Tanith Lee.
I must have picked up a copy and read a little way into it, even though I didn’t remember doing so at the time. I know that I drew a picture of a black horse with a mane and tail of blue flame, and a dark-haired rider crouching low in the saddle.
For several years, that picture boggled my teenage brain: I couldn’t figure out where it came from. It wasn’t anything from my haphazard made-up universes, which owed more to Tolkien and Star Wars then. I walked by that book and others from Tanith Lee, intrigued by their ‘adult’ titles and covers but reluctant to beg my Mom to buy them. (She probably would have, but I was self-conscious.)
In college five years later, I bought my own new copy of ‘Night’s Master’, and learned it was part of her Flat Earth series. Those books changed my world.
First, I finally learned the origins of that damn horse.
Second, the writing was gorgeous and fearlessly complex, at turns full of sly humor, majestic vision, rich sensuality, and deep emotion. Lee also introduced me to active, engaged alternative-sexuality characters at a time when most of them in SF&F were written as token victims or villains.
I would periodically binge on her writing for the next 30-odd years, learning more each time I did.
‘Sabella’ is one of the best SF Romance vampire stories ever told. The YA ‘Unicorn’ books are magical for their voice and strong characters. ‘Silver Metal Lover’ still leaves more-modern YA paranormal romances gasping in its dust.
I built an original cosmology from questions Lee posed first in her Flat Earth fantasies: the nature of love, the power and frailty of Mankind, and the folly of worshipping a supernatural entity *that does not care*. (Yes: whatever other philosophies she followed, Tanith Lee seemed very much a humanist.)
She was the second author (after J.R.R.T.) whose story endings can leave me sobbing and smiling foolishly at the same time. (Sir Terry Pratchett’s the third.)
Don’t get me wrong: Lee is also one of the few writers who can infect me with grinding ennui and deep revulsion. Her darker aspects match Bierce, Bloch, and Lovecraft. Her work is not for the faint of heart or the reading-challenged. She will make you look into the Abyss…and keep looking. She never left a trope unexamined or unmanipulated; she remains the only author I’ve ever seen who made incest work sympathetically in terms of a story.
I’m saddened by her passing, and selfishly bereft: I will probably never know her planned ending to the Flat Earth series, other than one tantalizing hint in a 30-year-old short-story retelling of Rapunzel called ‘The Golden Rope’. (And yes, this blog is partly named for it and the concept behind it.)
Tanith Lee is also a sad example of changing readership and publishing fashions. Where she had been a top fantasy author in the 70s and 80s, by the mid 2000s her career seemed to falter.
As late as 2010, she remarked in interviews that while her work output was as strong as ever, she was unable to get a lot of manuscripts into print because of profound disinterest from Big Five fantasy imprints. She had been in the process of issuing high-quality revised editions of her most recognized works through a small-press publisher…but that publisher fell on hard times during the recent recession, and upcoming Lee projects have (so far) been cancelled.
Lee was and remains a Writer’s Writer, a wordsmith whose skill is probably beyond readers who balk at descriptions of more than one sentence. She would have been an incredible candidate for self-published backlists (eh, my fellow Flat Earth fans?), but seemed unable or unwilling to take that step in time.
In her own words, from a Locus interview in 1998:
”If anyone ever wonders why there’s nothing coming from me, it’s not my fault. I’m doing the work. No, I haven’t deteriorated or gone insane. Suddenly, I just can’t get anything into print. And apparently I’m not alone in this. There are people of very high standing, authors who are having problems. So I have been told. In my own case, the more disturbing element is the editor-in-chief who said to me, ‘I think this book is terrific. It ought to be in print. I can’t publish it – I’ve been told I mustn’t.’ The indication is that I’m not writing what people want to read, but I never did.”
So amid the wistful tweets and reminiscences from authors, readers, and publishers, I’d like to rock the funereal boat and point fingers. Specifically, at the publisher where she started, and who oversaw at least one reissue of Lee’s Flat Earth fantasy series. At the other publishers who briefly carried her work, then wandered on. You (and here I mean both singular and collective ‘you’) have absolutely no right to be mourning her now.
If anything else, Lee’s example encourages me to consider self-publishing my Lonhra Sequence books, if I get no interest from a strong commercial imprint.