Date read: 11.1.07; reread once or twice since
Book from: Library originally; now personal collection
(There is nothing about this cover that does not amuse and please me. Consider it an honorary Bad Book Cover Friday?)
Tanith Lee‘s The Secret Books of Paradys are among the most exquisitely aestheticized and unabashedly Gothic works I’ve ever read, which means of course that I’m obsessed with them. The series is set in a parallel-universe version of Paris, known variously as Paradys, Paradis, Par Dis, and Paradise. (Lee has also written a more recent series about a para-Venice, The Secret Books of Venus, though I’ve yet to read them.) Each of the four volumes comprises interweaving, thematically unified stories. The books stand alone well, though they’re seeded with references to a few recurring elements within the universe – locations, names, a certain poet – and the fourth volume has a climactic finality to it. Each of the books is further themed by color (see what I mean about aestheticized?), frequently embodied in significant pieces of jewelry and, in The Book of the Damned, stained-glass windows. (Always makes me think of “The Masque of the Red Death.”)
The Book of the Damned takes as its themes sexual transgression and ambiguities of sex, gender, and identity, considered in three novellas. The first, “Stained with Crimson,” follows an ill-fated poet, Andre St. Jean, on a journey of sexual obsession in 19th-century Paradys. St. Jean is given a ruby scarab ring by a dying man on the hills of the Temple Church; soon after, he is introduced to the ring’s owner, the ineffably unobtainable Antonina von Aaron. Cue a game of predator and prey in which role reversals are linked with a cycle of death, rebirth, and sex changes. Oh yes, and vampires. I mean, obviously. This is perhaps my favorite out of all the Paradys tales, both for its sentimental associations, as it launched my Tanith Lee obsession, and for its no-holds-barred Gothstravaganza, ladled out in the most sonorous, decadent, purple-saturated language imaginable. Further layers of allegorical imagery incorporate Greek mythology (a Pan symbol, a trip down a deathly river) and the elements, the latter perhaps complementing the book’s primary-color triad.
“Malice in Saffron,” though little less wrought and hectic, takes a much grimmer turn. As with many of Lee’s works, its events are incited by sexual violence and abuse of women. The protagonist, Jehanine, is assaulted by her stepfather and rejected by her beloved brother. After fleeing the countryside, she finds shelter within a nunnery in medieval Paradys, but by night transforms herself into capricious, murderous Jehan, who roams the backstreets of Paradys with a gang of thieves. Like many of Lee’s vengeful heroines, Jehanine nears the brink of being consumed by her own desire for destruction, but ultimately finds peace and redemption. Jehanine, I suspect, is a distant Paradysian extrapolation of Joan of Arc/Jeanne d’Arc; her story also heavily references Cathar beliefs.
The final novella, “Empires of Azure,” again features a writer given a fateful artifact by a dying man. This time the protagonist is a journalist named Anna St. Jean, who took the original Andre St. Jean’s name as a pen name, echoing Jehanine’s appropriation of male identity and privilege. In a crowded café of early 20th-century Paradys, a beautiful stranger presents Mlle. St. Jean with a note: “In a week, or less, I shall be dead.” Thus chosen to be the recipient of his strange story, she finds herself drawn to the haunted, blue-windowed attic where he briefly made his residence, and where she witnesses – she thinks – his death. Left only with his journal, she is forced to uncover the origins of his tale, and pursue it to his ultimate end.
Though Anna is a less stylized and therefore more relatable protagonist, “Empires of Azure” was the least immediately compelling to me of the three novellas. Appropriately for its color theme, it’s chillier in feel; a subdued melancholy and methodical mystery format replace the emotional pyrotechnics of the preceding novellas. Nonetheless, Anna, like both of her predecessors, receives ecstatic visions of the otherworldly and transcendental, and the nature of her visions might make this the most sublimely weird story of the collection. Ghosts, a female impersonator, a goddess impersonator, and an honest-to-goodness deity all make an appearance, as does a glimpse at the history of Roman-era Paradys, foreshadowing its prominent role in the mythology of the next Paradys volume, The Book of the Beast. The collapsing of present and past witnessed by Anna also becomes a recurring theme of the rest of the series, as Lee continues to build an impression of Paradys as a multitude of overlapping stories and realities, separated only very thinly.