Night’s Master is the sort of book that not everyone will like, but for what it is, it’s brilliant. The styling is exquisite, the characterization direct and to-the-point in a way I’ve rarely seen before, getting right to a character’s essence without any muddying around. The plot concerned me at times while reading, but eventually proved itself beyond my expectations. I rarely say this, but this is a novel that stays with you.
As I said above, I did have my doubts coming into it. I had no prior knowledge of Tanith Lee or her Tales from the Flat Earth series. The opening moments of the text are concerned with a figure named Azhrarn, who is essentially presented as the devil, the literal Lord of Darkness. Any red-blooded fantasy fan will at this point be forgiven for assuming that the scene must be the moment at which the evil prince lays the seeds for his own destruction. Indeed, everything seems to be going as planned. Azhrarn abducts a human child and lays his own enchantments about him to make him nigh invulnerable. Our hero is ready, awaiting his moment of disillusionment.
That moment comes… and the story ends. Another begins. Perhaps for someone with prior knowledge of the series, this would not have been so surprising, but I felt as though I’d opened what I thought was a novel and found myself reading a book of short stories. Initially, that’s very much what Night’s Master feels like: a set of random stories from Lee’s universe. As time goes on, however, it becomes clear that the stories presented are far from random. Each is connected, even if only peripherally, to Azhrarn, or to something that eventually connects to Azhrarn. The story spans centuries, telling of the tiny influences that pile up to lead to the character transcending himself.
This is not epic, but mythology. The stories are clearly crafted after ancient legends, stylistically as well as thematically. Lee does an admirable job of balancing the new and the old to make her style accessible to modern readers. That said, the style she has chosen forces her to a distance from the plot that some might find cold. The perspective of Night’s Master is that of a telescope from a high mountain, watching events clinically and coolly, save for moments of sudden emotional depth. For readers who are accustomed to walking right behind a human protagonist, so to speak, this may be a bit of a turn-off. Another possible issue I can foresee is that the intricacy of the plot may bore a few readers, as there are a number of moments where it’s difficult to tell how, if at all, the episode one has just read can ever connect to the main arc.
These are the issues I can see, but obviously I didn’t find them a problem. I adored Lee’s grand style. Her prose put me in mind, pleasantly, of oral-tradition storytelling. Azhrarn, as quasi-protagonist, remained a figure I could never take for granted. He is never quite likeable but always rather glorious, a force of nature characterized entrancingly well.
Overall, I loved this book. It was not particularly ambitious in a literary sense, nor was it warm and human, but in many ways that’s what made it fascinating. This is a novel that really does carry the feel of a legend and is never insecure in that role. Night’s Master never goes out of its way to appeal to the reader’s comfort. It instead presents an elegant, beautiful vision and invites others to share it. Reading this book, one can almost hear the crackle of the fire, the voice of the storyteller, the whisper of the desert wind.
Long ago, the earth was flat. Humans lived on its surface while the benevolent gods who created them lived in the heavens. Regretting that they had made man, the gods ignored their creation and held themselves aloof while the sorcerous demons that lived in the glowing gem-encrusted city under the earth were permitted to use humans as they wished. Being at the whim of cruel and impulsive demons made these times terrifying for humans. Eventually hate and evil began to prevail, and earth was near death, but the gods showed no inclination to save humanity. Azhrarn, Prince of Demons and Night’s Master, was the proudest and most powerful demon of all. When he discovered a beautiful orphaned human child and brought him to live in the underworld, the destiny of the earth was changed forever.
Tanith Lee’s Night’s Master, the first of her FLAT EARTH series, is a collection of connected stories set in Lee’s unique world. The first story recounts Azhrarn’s discovery and love for the human child he finds. Each of the following tales is related, perhaps by a character, an object, or a theme. Together, the stories weave a vast dark mythology covering thousands of years. With vivid imagery and elegant prose, they show demons meddling in human affairs, humbling men who exalt themselves, and using magic to harness the powers of music, love, and joy as well as grief, hate, and death.
Night’s Master is dark, yet richly luxuriant and full of passion. The writing is gorgeous. There’s not much more that a lover of excellent fantasy could ask for, though some readers may wish for a more obvious hero to love. You won’t find one here. Instead, you’ll feel the decline of civilization and the degeneration into hopelessness as a capricious demon wields magic against powerless men. But because the demons admire beauty, there’s also a gothic splendor that permeates the novel. In many ways the setting and characters of FLAT EARTH are reminiscent of Jack Vance’s DYING EARTH stories, which isn’t surprising considering that Vance was one of Tanith Lee’s major influences.
Night’s Master has just been produced in audio by Audible Frontiers. The narrator, Susan Duerden, did a great job with the dialogue — she has a lovely resonant voice which is a good fit for this dark fairytale. Unfortunately, her reading occasionally takes on a noticeable sing-song quality during the narrative. I hope this will not be as conspicuous in the second FLAT EARTH novel, Death’s Master.