I’m a big fan of Tanith Lee. Like many great fantasy writers, Lee understood that to truly transport a reader, it’s not enough to talk about dragons or swords or magic systems. Readers are transported just as much or more by the way these things are talked about. Lee’s work has that eerie, otherworldly feel that characterizes the best works of this genre. She could make a story about a squirrel looking for nuts feel like something dredged from a forgotten and more romantic epoch. And sometimes, that’s… well, more or less what she did. Lee’s writing has sparked life into many prosaic ideas. But where she really showed her mettle was when she settled onto an idea worthy of her.
With that said, Companions on the Road (at least as it presently exists) is a compilation work of two novellas. Both are good, but one is great. I’m going to start with that one.
So, let’s get to the titular “Companions on the Road.” It’s a simple enough story: a cowardly thief, a handsome jerk, and a kindly soldier rob a magician’s sanctum for their own specific reasons. In doing so, they bring down a terrifying curse. I won’t say that the plot is entirely original, but the story is told in that inimitable Tanith Lee style that makes me remember why I got into reading Fantasy in the first place. Lee manages her larger-than-life characters with admirable panache, her imagery is lovely, and the mingled menace and mythic grandeur of the goings-on adds up to a genuinely great experience. I loved this one.
The second story, “The Winter Players,” concerns a young priestess who attempts to hunt down a thief who has stolen a sacred relic from her shrine. It’s well-written, full of lush imagery and the same mythic tone as the first, but the skeletal structure of the work isn’t as solid as in the first novella. Lee ties things together fairly well, but the plot nonetheless feels unplanned, as if she was making it up as she went along and didn’t bother to retroactively alter the beginning to make more sense with the finale. “The Winter Players” is very much worth it for the quality of the writing, but it feels less polished than “Companions on the Road.”
Overall, Companions on the Road is a fine collection and a great starting point for the reader interested in getting into Tanith Lee’s work. The first story is definitely a bit stronger than the second, but both have solid merits. Recommended.