Review: Dreams of Dark and Light by Tanith Lee

Published February 16, 2014 by Shannon

Dreams of Dark and Light: The Great Short Fiction

Back when I was a wee small fan of science fiction and fantasy, someone turned me onto the Women of Wonder anthologies edited by Pamela Sargent. (The link goes to a review of the one I read. I was having a hard time tracking down a link to the version I read on Amazon. Anyway, that anthology introduced me to several female authors of SF, including Tanith Lee, who it turns out has written a metric fuckton of books. (That’s a technical term.) Relatively few of these are accessible, which makes me sad, but one that I did read as a teenager was Dreams of Dark and Light. On a lark, I recently decided to revisit this collection. Goodreads says of it:

Publication of The Birthgrave in 1975 heralded a new and brilliant luminary in the firmament of modem fantasy. Ostensibly a sword-and-sorcery epic in the tradition of Robert E. Howard, this novel about a youthful heroine with incipient psychic powers astounded readers with its striking originality and intense emotional impact. Tanith Lee today is one of the most versatile and respected writers of fantasy, horror, and science fiction, and DREAMS OF DARK AND LIGHT represents a massive midcareer retrospective of her achievements over the previous decade.
Here are unforgettable tales of werewolves that prowl chateaux, an Earthwoman in exile on a distant planet, demons that inhabit bodies of the living dead, a race of vampiric creatures who prey upon a cursed castle, and many other works of exotic vision, mythic science fiction, and contemporary horror. Also included are two stories that have received the World Fantasy Award, “Elle est Trois, (La Mort)” and “The Gorgon,” making DREAMS OF DARK AND LIGHT a distinguished one volume library of myth-weaving at its most eloquent and evocative.
Although acclaimed as the “Princess Royal of Heroic Fantasy,” Tanith Lee has long since transcended genre conventions to create a body of work of remarkable psychological depth and artistic distinction. In her imaginative sympathy with characters, human or otherwise, Lee remains unexcelled in the portrayal of deeply felt emotions. Her stories explore many of the most significant themes in twentieth-century literature – life and death, coming of age, the nature of good and evil, love in all its manifestations. And she remains, above all, one of the great natural storytellers working in the English language … Tanith Lee truly has become the Scheherazade of our time.

I wrote brief impressions of each of the stories as I read. I don’t really know how to make this review more cohesive, so it will be rambling and disjointed… like most things on the blog. C’est la vie, I suppose.

I hated Rosemary Jarman’s foreword to this anthology. It boils down to: “Tanith Lee writes smartly, unlike all those hack writers.” She does write smartly, and her stories do require a close reading, but I could have done without bait of blatant literary snobbishness in a collection that contains a lot of genre work. I felt insulted, so I’m just saying it’s a good thing I didn’t actually read this collection for the author of the foreword. Plus, when there are stories that are totally works of style over substance, being labeled a “smart writer” translates in my head to a pretentious one.

“Because Our Skins Are Finer” reminded me of The Brides of Rollrock Island. A seal hunter receives a visit from one of the Shealce (selkies, obviously) who forces him to empathize with her people. I really liked the poetic language, and the evocativeness of the setting. A fairy tale with a kernel of darkness, but still plenty that was sweet.

“Bite-Me-Not, or Fleur de Fur”: I actually remembered quite a bit of this one. It’s another fairy tale, and at first it seems like it might be a Cinderella or possibly a Rapunzel story, but it’s neither. A castle has been under siege by winged vampires for years, and the duke is said to be cursed because of the loss of his daughter. Meanwhile, a scullery maid longs for something more than this provincial life. The darkly compelling and primal winged vampires were the most interesting part, and certainly were what stuck in my teenaged head. Also, this one wins at feminism because the scullery maid heroine rejects the life of a princess in order to pursue yet another path. Granted, that path is with a vampire whom she falls in love with, but it’s all her idea. Also this is the second story with the theme of love as a subversive element.

“Black as Ink” is largely forgettable. It has more of a magical realism element than the other two stories, which were pure fantasy. Magic realism can be done really well or really badly. It often feels extraneous, and if I’m left to ponder whether or not I’m missing something, the story ceases to entertain. I was not entertained. Also, the protagonist is a whiny, privileged little shit. I have no doubt I wasn’t meant to find him all that sympathetic, but there wasn’t really enough in his story to compel me, either. Also this begins a running theme of an evil yet compelling woman forcing a man to do stupid things. If this were a drinking game, you’d definitely take a shot every time an evil seductress shows up in this anthology, and this is where you’d start.

“Bright Burning Tiger”: Another story with a magical realism bent. The more I think about it, the more I like its style. It has a very old-fashioned flare, with the narrator being an observer and not the protagonist. It’s about a man who hunts tigers. There’s another bit of supernatural that might be real or it might be the product of an unreliable narrator. Unfortunately, it’s also about British colonialism, and the India portrayed is a savage place, and the Indians were shown as superstitious natives. I could have done without that bit of racism, and I was not sufficiently entertained. But there is no evil seductress so there’s that.

“Cyrion in Wax”: I remember enough of this one that I was excited to read it again. I loved the idea of a courtesan as a protagonist,. and I used the name Mareme (the name of the courtesan in this story) in RP for a long time. Unfortunately, though this was a fine swashbuckling adventure tale, Mareme herself was pretty useless. Also, the homoerotic subtext was strong in this one, which I mostly appreciate, but dammit, I wanted Mareme the whore to have more to do.

“A Day in the Skin; Or, the Century We Were Out of Them”: After the last couple of duds, this was refreshing. I think real SF fans would call this a post-human story. It’s all about how an accident on a planet humans want to settle on forces the survivors to go into a stasis outside their bodies until they can artificially construct android bodies to replace the ones the accident damaged. It doesn’t really make a lot of sense, but it’s the kind of measure I could see a greedy corporation taking as a means of cost-saving. Our protagonist, Scay, has a day out in the body of a woman (he is male). He meets and talks to an old friend, and not much happens, but not much needs to. It’s a story about a bunch of cool ideas, and Lee plays with them well. It’s also a lovely story about friendship. I wish the idea had been expanded on some more.

“The Dry Season” is another winner. Set in an alternate Rome, it’s about a garrison commander who sees a girl, tries to save her from her own people’s religion, and bad things ensue. I’m beginning to sense a theme: dude sees girl. Bad shit goes down. That is what has happened in several of these stories. That said, I loved how anti-colonialist this story was, in comparison with “Burning Bright”, and again, we have a protagonist who isn’t very likable, but who is nonetheless interesting. The seductress wasn’t evil, but the protagonist did start waving his dick around (metaphorically speaking) when she showed up, so feel free to take a drink.

“Elle Est Troi (La Mort)” apparently won a World Fantasy Award. I am not sure why it’s so well-regarded. It left me rather cold. It’s about three artists in Paris who each encounter death in various forms. The horror element didn’t work for me. It was too… magical-realism-ish, and if you took away that element, you’d get a story about people who navel gaze a lot and whose lives don’t mean anything. Which, OK, if that’s your thing, that’s awesome. It’s not mine, though. I actively hated it, and think I hate it more because I don’t know why it got the accolades it did.

“Foreign Skins” gets us back to stories I liked. We’ve got another story set in India. The unattainable woman is here, this time in the form of a wanderer who arrives at the house of a British government worker and his wife. The man and his son are both fascinated by her, but it’s the son who gets an interesting coming-of-age tale. This is Lee at her best, with a cast of characters I find sympathetic even if I don’t always like them very much. This has the feel of a fairy tale, and the fantasy element is decidedly present, not ambiguous. Also the seductress isn’t evil, per se, but even though I liked it, I still think she counts. Drink up.

“The Gorgon” seems, from what I can tell on Goodreads, to be universal favorite among reviewers. Allow me, then, to be the voice of the fun police when I tell you I hated it. The plot centers around a writer who ends up on a Greek island. There’s a smaller island nearby, which the locals are silent about. Predictably, he swims over there, and encounters a masked woman. Who, it turns out, (spoiler spoiler spoiler look away now!) wears the mask due to facial paralysis. And despite this grueling disability, she pretty much disdains the man’s pity. He leaves the island and now can’t write anything, because… I’m not clear. Either way, we get a narrative about a disabled person that isn’t really her story. It’s the story of how she affected an able-bodied person, and, just… ugh. STFU, Tanith Lee. Also, drink. Because the woman hiding behind the mask was soooooooo evil and she ruined the writer’s muse.

“La Reine Blanche” is not one of the best stories in the collection, but after the awfulness that was “The Gorgon” I’ll take a bland, inoffensive dark fairy tale over something that makes me outraged. This one actually has a heroine, a queen shut up in a tower. Why she is there, and what her destiny is revealed to be, is interesting. I loved the imagery, and loved that for once the vaguely unlikeable protagonist also got to be the unattainable woman. That’s why you can skip drinking on this one.

“A Lynx with Lions” is set in the same world as “The Dry Season” and “Cyrion in Wax.” Cyrion is back with another swashbuckling adventure tale, a tale of swordsmanship, demons, and vengeance. It’s frothy and fun, which I can’t say for a lot of these stories. There was no evil seductress woman either, which is a bonus. I could have done without Cyrion the white savior, but we can’t have everything.

“Magritte’s Secret Agent” is another story that’s just fun. It doesn’t hang together particularly well, but I liked it. We have a female unnamed protagonist who becomes rather obsessed with Daniel, a beautiful man who is confined to a wheelchair. Beautiful, silent men will show up in other tales, too, so equal billing for unattainable members of your gender of choice for everyone! She insinuates herself into the life of the young man and his mother and in the end changes both irrevocably. I liked that this wasn’t nearly as grossly ableist as “The Gorgon”, because the protagonist totally owned her uncomfortable feelings around Daniel’s disability. But I still didn’t understand Daniel’s mom’s motivations. She was, to me, the most interesting character, so I wish she’d made a little more sense.

“Medra” is science fiction, and it’s pretty good. It’s a slice of life story about a young woman who was the last survivor of a planetary evacuation and the swashbuckling man who finds her. There’s no overwrought evil woman doing evil things here, and while the titular Medra seems to be a little silly, there’s more to her than meets the eye and I found her fascinating. Definitely one of the better offerings.

“Nunc Dimittis” is a darkly romantic tale of a vampire and the man who is her thrall. It’s also a story about dying, and rebirth. It’s a bit on the dark side, but it’s also incredibly sweet.

“Odds Against the Gods” was my favorite of the stories in this collection when I was a teenager. I still love it. It’s a swashbuckling tale of a former religious initiate turned thief who singlehandedly (and with the help of a friend she meets along the way) destroys several gods. It’s told in the cadence of a fairy tale, and the heroine is unapologetically bisexual and not slut-shamed. Her name is Truth and she lies like a rug. I adored this story and it left me with a huge smile.

“A Room With a Vie” is straight-up horror. A woman checks into a vacation flat and discovers that the room she’s rented is actually alive. There’s some serious Freudian imagery in this one, and it was pleasantly creepy. The ending is ambiguous, which is not a thing I’m generallycomfortable with. I liked it though. Definitely one of the more memorable pieces in the anthology.

“Siriamnus”: Hello, Dr. Freud. Hello, evil seductress woman. Take a drink. I hadn’t missed the evil seductress, but she’s still here to make me rage. I’m pretty sure Lee doesn’t feel the overt misogyny of her character, Tohmet, a slave in a Greek household where the young man of the family is taken with an exotic female (and African) slave who, naturally, causes all the trouble to everyone because she’s exotic and dark-skinned and a woman, but that being the case it is my personal preference never to read anything where the moral is, “Yup. Women be castrating bitches.” Especially when that’s literally my take-away.

“Southern Lights” was another horror story. This time the “vaguely evil seductress” thing is played with, because our protagonist is a woman. I love that this is a queer story. It’s also dark fantasy, and even a little steampunk-ish. A traveler finds herself staying the night with an alchemist and his daughter. It is not nearly as fun for her as it was for, say, Janet.

“Tamastara” was just weird. It seems to be a science fiction story about the Hindi faith and reincarnation, and there were fascinating things under the surface, I’m sure. Sadly, I don’t know what they were because I spent the whole time being bored. I couldn’t even really tell you what it was about. I do know there was no evil seductress, though, so props for that.

“When The Clock Strikes” is another clear winner. It’s an inverted Cinderella story, which turns every aspect of the tale, from the cinder wench (TM Andrew Lang) herself to the stepmother to the prince and the glass slipper on its head. I liked it, despite the evil seductress. It’s dark and angry, and not too long. Lee is clearly at her best when writing these dark fairy tales.

“Wolfland” is Tanith Lee doing gothic. And also there are werewolves. The heroine is basically a hapless damsel while also being incredibly hard to like. Bitches be materialistic and money-hungry, emirite? I did think the story worked, though, and it was nice to see werewolves in their traditional, actually-scary rather than paranormal sexy, incarnations.

“Written in Water” rounds out the anthology and lets it end on a relatively positive note. Lee’s evil seductress is sort of inverted in that she’s actually the protagonist, and she doesn’t start out that way. Basically, a man falls from the sky and a woman takes him in, finding that he is her perfect helpmeet. Then it turns out that at some point she must have read this post because apparently she is the last woman on earth and she’s not having that helpmeet bullshit, and while I admire the sentiment it felt random. I think I was supposed to see her as an unreliable narrator, but then it turns out she’s right about everything? And… I don’t know. Also the heroine is a dried-up spinster at 35, which as a 32-year-old spinster lady didn’t give me happy feels at all. It was entertaining and disjointed and I liked the setup a lot more when it was called Starman.

***********

Overall, a mixed bag. When the stories were good, they were awesome. When they were bad, they were overblown and verbose and there were too many evil seductresses. I’m not sorry that I reread this anthology, but I’m not nearly in so much of a hurry to rediscover the rest of Tanith Lee’s books.

Final grade: C

8 comments on “Review: Dreams of Dark and Light by Tanith Lee

  • I kind of feel like most anthologies are mixed bags. I mean, I like reading the different stories but I’ve never read one where every single story is a hit for me.

    When The Clock Strikes sounds awesome, btw.

    • “When the Clock Strikes” was amazing. I don’t know if the anthology is worth the price of admission for that story alone, but Satanic Cinderella is pretty much my favorite concept ever.

  • Hrm. I do want to pick it up, because I really like what Tanith Lee writes when she gets it right, but I’ll keep my hopes from getting too high.
    One of my favorite obscure books as a wee KJ was her Unicorn trilogy–by which I mean that I read the second one, Gold Unicorn, ten times before I realized it was a sequel. My memories of its world and its heroine, Tanaquil, are all positive. I shall try to get them from the library. Thanks for reminding me of Lee, even if she isn’t your cup of tea!

    • I would really like to read more of her science fiction. I have “The Silver Metal Lover” on my list, and her Flat Earth books seem pretty compelling.

      I think I read the Unicorn books shortly after I read Dreams of Dark and Light. They were such a different experience from the short stories that all I remember about them was that I wished they’d been darker.

  • Wow, I thought that I had read a “metric fuckton” of Tanith Lee, but I don’t remember *any* of these stories. Just as well, really — when Lee is on for me (usualy the fairy tale retellings), she’s really really on; when she isn’t, she’s infuriating.

    Checking her bibliography, it turns out I’ve read mostly her novels, and most of those the YA ones. It seems that I have a habit of falling in love with the first book in many of her series, and then liking the sequels less and less.

    But I think THE SILVER METAL LOVER is, for me, one of those essential books of — romance? anti-romance? female empowerment? false feminism? I really can’t say — it’s almost beyond criticism for me. My mother gave it to me when I was in high school, and I gave it to my daughter when she was in high school, and it’s all mixed up with adolescence and independence and the gorgeous complicated mess that is mothers and daughters.

    I’d love to read your take on it as someone coming fresh to it as an adult.

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