The Flat Earth Series: Epic Fantasy Fiction From Tanith Lee

Dec 4, 2020
Death's Master - US edition
Death's Master - US edition
Sometime in the mid-eighties I was ploughing through dozens of large cardboard boxes piled high with used paperbacks in a ramshackle second hand book shop I had discovered locally. Housed in a derelict and converted church, it was a timeless and mouldy shrine to pulp fiction of every persuasion. Provided you weren't too fussy about the condition (which at the time I wasn't), you could pretty much find every example of trash exploitation writing from the sixties through to the seventies heaped up in great wobbling stacks, ready to tip over and bury you if you made one careless move. Guy N. Smith's cheap schlock horror sat alongside slim New English Library skinhead novels, and Leo Kessel and Sven Hassel's war time SS regiment books, alongside Don Pendleton's Death Wish-inspired Executioner series, John Norman's misogynistic Gor books, and piles of early seventies satanist novels with rather fetching cover photographs of young, semi-naked hippy chicks being menaced by sinister robed men wearing goat head masks, flanked by burning torches.

It was a window into a publishing world that really doesn't exist anymore, except perhaps in some cracked black mirror of the soul. It was safe to say that if you could find all of that, you could find anything you might be looking for, and plenty more besides, somewhere inside that church hall with its towering fitted book cases reaching up to the vaulted ceiling way past even my extended reach (you always had the vague suspicion that the really good stuff was on shelves that no one could ever get to). And it was here that I came across a newish writer of fantasy that I had heard of but not read before: Tanith Lee. She had a number of books to her name by then but was considered to be something of a leftfield writer, very hard to pigeonhole in any existing sub-genre of fantasy. I picked out two of her Flat Earth series of books mostly because I liked the covers, took them home and put them on a pile to get round to someday. 

Then one rainy autumn evening I picked up the copy of Death's Master and within a couple of chapters I knew I'd struck gold. The Flat Earth novels are astonishing in their scope and style. Written over a timespan that covers thousands of years in all, back in the pre-Biblical days when our world was indeed flat, before it became round, the tales resonate with a dark Arabian Nights feel, reminiscent of ancient Babylonian mythology. Essentially the books tell the tale of a pantheon of 'Gods' (or more accurately, 'Demons') who each embody certain archetypes, such as Death, Night, Despair, Delirium, Delusion etc, and if this sounds rather familiar. it is the same basic concept that permeates through Neil Gaiman's subsequent Sandman series of comic books for DC Vertigo. Lee's books paint an opium dreamlike history of an ancient world through the eyes of these immortal and capricious beings as they plot and scheme against one another, often for petty and insubstantial reasons, using and discarding wide-eyed and helpless humanity in the process. To these creatures time is a mere illusion – the passing of centuries mere grains of sand in an hour glass barely emptied and so, as the books in the series progress, we see mortal characters briefly appearing and disappearing on the literary stage, growing old, living and dying in various perverse ways, their grand empires rising and falling, their ruins crumbling finally to dust as even the memory of their existence fades from the thoughts of man to be replaced by yet another thousand year era but, throughout, these eternal beings continue to plot and scheme and play their games. The word 'epic' barely does the conceit justice.

Night's Master - US edition
Night's Master - US edition
Reading Death's Master and then Night's Master and Delirium's Mistress in quick succession, I was astonished by the sheer number of brilliant stories and ideas Tanith Lee was telling across a handful of chapters at a time, only to then discard them for other equally stunning ideas, when other lesser writers would probably spin whole 550 page novels from each one. The books were a treasure trove of riches with enough ideas to keep a decadent swords and sorcery roleplaying game going forever. And the language was lush beyond anything I'd read before. Normally I'm not too bothered about descriptive writing – for me the narrative, characterisation and dialogue is preeminent, but Tanith Lee described the decadent opulence of this ancient world so vividly that I could almost smell the scent of cinnamon in the air and hear the discordant whispering of Azharn's ebony skinned hermaphroditic servitors as they flew above the palm tree oases on winged chariots of burnished copper and gold.

Why aren't these books better known, I thought as I finished the final chapters of each one? Why is the thumpingly derivative crap by David Eddings and Terry Brooks so popular, when the Flat Earth cycle of stories is readily available as an alternative? But then part of me actually liked the idea that these books occupied the same sort of niche appeal as Velvet Underground LPs – they obviously weren't for everyone, and like most good things in life you had to seek them out, they wouldn't find you, or indeed even make it easy by being racked prominently in branches of Waterstones. I went on to pick up several other of Tanith Lee's books from that extremely creative and prolific period when she was published by DAW books in the US. The Birthgrave in particular had the same epic feel and, fast becoming Lee's trademark, the evocative descriptions which fleshed out her fantasy worlds with a sense of ease that belied how difficult it really was. 

Her book Women As Demons probably stands as one of my favourite collections of short stories in any genre, and the Book Of The Damned set in an alternative fantasy 18th century Paris (of sorts) proved she was still on top of her game long after most of her peers would have succumbed to cliché fatigue. 

Delusion's Master - US edition
Delusion's Master - US edition
I confess I lost track of her work sometime in the nineties when lack of high profile success saw her slide down the publishing ladder to a succession of small press imprints and out of sight (to me at least). One of the saddest indictments of the state of publishing these days is the article I read some years back in which Tanith Lee mentioned (in a purely resigned fashion) that she was finding it hard to get anything published at all – editors no longer even returned her calls or responded to her letters - a far more common state of play for long established authors who never made it to the top of the tree than you might think. I'd just tried some ponderous and weighty tome by an up and coming 'rising new star' in the fantasy genre and discarded it in despair, wondering how on Earth these things could be bestsellers. But I cheered up when Lee went on to say she had planned a couple of new Flat Earth novels – the first in decades – with a tentative publishing plan in hand. It was something to look forward to, despite rumours of Lee's poor health. But the books were never to be as her health continued to decline in private. Her blog posts to her website disappeared, and then so did the website itself and then for a long period of time there was nothing at all. 

Some time later I learnt of her death from breast cancer in May 2015 when the Guardian published an obituary piece. Another legend of the fantasy genre was lost to us. 

And now those final Flat Earth books exist only in Neil Gaiman's library of books that were imagined but never written (in the pages of Sandman).

Probably on a top shelf of a ridiculously tall book case, a good six feet higher than even I can possibly reach...

The series in full:

Night’s Master
Death’s Master
Delusion’s Master
Delirium’s Mistress
Night’s Sorceries

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