On Tanith Lee's Flat Earth, humans live in the space between apathetic gods and vain and meddlesome demons. In the first FLAT EARTH book, Night's Master, we met Azhrarn, prince of demons and ruler of the night who found and loved a human orphan. I loved that book for its exotic setting and gorgeous fairytale quality, but Death's Master, the second FLAT EARTH book, is even more enchanting. While the first book was a series of connected tales, Death's Master is a traditional novel. This time we meet a second Lord of Darkness, Uhlume, Lord Death, when he makes a deal with Narasen, a human warrior queen.
Narasen, the Leopard Queen of Merh, doesn't like men. When she rebuffs a powerful magician, he curses her, causing plague, famine and barrenness to settle in Merh. An oracle announces that the land will be healed when Narasen, who is barren, bears a child. After the people of Merh have sent all the men they can muster to Narasen, she seeks escape by asking the witch Lylas, Death's Handmaiden, to arrange a deal with Death.
Uhlume, the Lord of Death, gives Narasen a child, but the price she must pay is heavy: after giving birth, she must remain under the Earth with Uhlume for 1000 years. The rest of the story follows Simmu, Narasen's hermaphrodite child; his friend Zhirem, whose mother also made a deal with Death; Lylas, who assigns nine virgins to guard the waters of immortality; the demon Azhrarn, who can't help but meddle in human affairs; and other characters that've unfortunately come to the attention of demons.
It's hard to truly like any of these characters, which, I suspect, is the main reason that the FLAT EARTH books are not universally loved. Tanith Lee's characters are all well-developed, but they don't give back. They're not interested in whether you like them, so you're not likely to find yourself really caring what happens to any of them. Tanith Lee isn't offering us friends. Instead, she offers a vision of a world that's completely foreign, yet peopled by real humans who we can relate to, whether we like them or not. Lee uses this unfamiliar world to explore familiar human nature in a way that isn't possible outside a fantasy setting.
One theme in Death's Master is the idea that when life becomes difficult, we often preserve sanity by knowingly casting illusions. When Narasen goes with Death to the underworld, she sees all the humans who've made similar deals with Death and must live in his kingdom for 1000 years. The place is horrible, but they've constructed illusions to make it bearable. When Narasen scorns these weak-minded people, Death explains that they survive by creating their own reality:
"The soul is a magician. Only living flesh hampers it... This land is a blank parchment where anyone may write what they wish."
Another theme is the boredom that comes with immortality on Earth. When the well of immortality is discovered and some humans drink from it, their lives eventually become pointless and dull. Lee suggests that the gods knew that the constant threat of pain and death is what gives life its meaning and joy:
"Men could not have too much. Ecstasy and vulnerability belonged in the same dish. The fear the cup would be snatched away was what gave the wine its savor and as Zhirem's cup was sure, so was his joylessness... to die is a fear, but to live is a fear, also."
These ideas are so beautifully examined in Death's Master, but Tanith Lee's writing isn't unrelievedly heavy. In fact, I think she's one of the funniest writers I know and even this dark tale has plenty of humor. Tanith Lee's imagination and writing style are a fantasy lover's dream. If you haven't read Tanith Lee, you're missing one of our age's best fantasists. If you're not into the twisted dark fairytales found in FLAT EARTH, you should at least try some of her short fiction, which is easily found in the best anthologies.
I listened to Susan Duerden narrate the audio version which was just released by Audible Frontiers. Her lush voice is gorgeous and I think she has the sexiest male voice I've ever heard by female or male narrator. The sing-song quality I mentioned in my review of Night's Master was less noticeable this time. If you're an audio reader, don't miss this. Death's Master, originally published in 1979, won the British Fantasy Award for Best Novel in 1980.