It Died Eight Times My Love. After that, Love Stays Dead…
Tanith Lee once again proves herself a master of young adult fantasy with this wonderful (but apparently little known) story of the battle of the sexes. Set in a gloriously created world where women ride horned lions and rule over mankind, East of Midnight is a book that is easy to read, yet raises a range of questions on the differences between man and woman and the way in which we interact with each other.
At the beginning of the story, Lee herself writes where her inspiration came from: “Old legends have it, before men were kings, women ruled large areas of the world. They were as powerful and ruthless as any of the man-ruled states which came after. Indeed, the harshness of men towards women in many early societies was, they said, due to the cruelty the female societies — matriarchies — had already displayed toward men… And so what happens if a young man from a male-dominated world gets thrown into a world of matriarchy? Fascinated by this thought, I set out to explore the whole thing in this novel.”
Dekteon is a young runaway slave who is miraculously saved from his former master when he’s transported into another world by the magician Zaister. But things are not quite as simple as that. Zaister is the husband and consort of King Izvire, the stunning woman who rules over a matriarchal city. Every five years she takes a new husband, because the former one must be sacrificed in order to ensure the natural balance of the world.
Zaister has long plotted his escape, and his rescue of Dekteon (who is his double in another world) was merely so the two could switch places. Now whilst Zaister finds that freedom in Dekteon’s world is not all it’s cracked up to be, Dekteon finds himself amongst the beauty of Zaister’s world with only a month left to live before he’s sacrificed.
But Dekteon does not have the same fear of women ingrained in him that the rest of the men of this world do, and begins a campaign against them that no one else would dare. Up against Izvire, his mother-in-law Kyrast and his daughter Vesain, Dekteon attempts to escape his death-sentence and stop the needless deaths of the king’s consorts.
The story races along on every page, being continually colourful, fascinating, exciting and nerve-wracking as the countdown to Dekteon’s death creeps closer. Lee not only vividly describes the matriarchal world where women are dominant and men subservient, but takes a deeper look at what makes these opposing genders tick. Far from taking the women’s side, Lee portrays them as hard, merciless and sexist rulers, who nevertheless feel true remorse and loneliness when their husbands are killed. There are no true good-guys or bad-guys here.
The men Dekteon and Zaister are our main protagonists, and have very different views on women and how they are to be treated by them. Though by the end of the story Zaister gets away with far more than he rightfully deserves, together their attitudes form an insightful way of looking at the world and the roles of men and women.
East of Midnight is a rich, exciting, poignant read that deserves more recognition than it appears to have. With strong and realistic characters, a beautiful visual landscape and a problematic situation that can be overcome only by the two sexes working together, this is in every particular a great book.