Let me be clear: The Birthgrave has kind of a dumb plot. It’s repetitive, it’s all predicated on a prosaic twist that’s kept overly mysterious, and when the big reveal finally does come, it’s via one of the most blatant examples of deus ex machina I’ve ever seen. All the same, I’d still call this a good book. Maybe even a great one. That’s the magic of Tanith Lee: even her first novel, a work where she was clearly still working out her craft to an extent, feels like something you might find engraved on an ancient stone tablet under a forgotten prehistoric pyramid. She has remarkably rich prose, of course — it’s Tanith Lee, so that practically goes without saying — but she also makes the characters feel true in a way that so very few novelists can manage. The events paint the mind’s eye so clearly that they dazzled me, and ultimately distracted from the weaknesses of the narrative.
The story begins in an active volcano (I wish I got to write that phrase more often), with someone coming suddenly awake with no idea who or what she is. She appears to be a young woman with a weird, deformed face, but it quickly becomes apparent that while the protagonist is inexperienced and female, she may not be young and probably isn’t a human woman at all. As she wanders through the volcanic cavern, she encounters a trippy sequence straight out of a 1970s fantasy film where a bizarre, mostly-disembodied creature called Karrakaz — supposedly the embodiment of the evil of her race — offers a choice between two confusing options: the protagonist may take up a dagger on Karrakaz’s altar and kill herself (which would, in the opinion of Karrakaz, be a mercy-death, sparing both the protagonist and the world great anguish), or she can go forth in search of a vaguely described solace or redemption referred to only as “the Jade.”
The protagonist elects to pursue the Jade, though without any real knowledge of what that is or where it might be found. Leaving Karrakaz in the cavern of her birth and potential death (so, yes, in her birthgrave), she flees the volcano before the eruption and sets forth on a very dreamy and episodic quest through the ruins of her extinct race’s empire. On the way, she is many things to the various human inhabitants of this world: sometimes a warrior, sometimes a bandit, sometimes a healer, witch, or goddess. The supporting cast changes nearly as often as the protagonist’s roles, and the final effect is a plaintively beautiful story of endless wandering in search of a destiny, like a very melancholy and lushly written version of the early Conan the Barbarian stories.
A nameless antihero on series of bleak adventures is hardly an original concept, and of course a magically superior “elder race” has made it into just about every fantasy novel ever; but Lee’s take on the ideas makes them feel fresh again. Our Woman with No Name is just as complex and morally ambiguous as any of her male counterparts I could name (more so, in many cases), and the fact that she remains so fascinating throughout the story despite her constant depression and general aimlessness is quite a triumph of characterization. Her various interactions with other characters — especially those with two prominent love interests — have a great deal of thematic heft, none of which slows the pacing or feels out of place in the world of the story. In these points at least, Lee is on top of her game.
The prose is mostly fantastic — I think Lee may be one of the most naturally gifted authors I’ve ever read — though in this, her first novel, I did find the occasional slip-up or bit of wonky styling, places where Lee’s imagery didn’t quite work as intended or her language became slightly muddled. It’s barely noticeable, but it is there.
The major point against the novel is still the plot, though. It’s not that it’s awful, but after a while the ongoing quest for the Jade becomes a bit grating when we get no further hints about how the journey might eventually be resolved. There are clues about Ye Olde Elfy Race once in a while, but Lee holds most of her cards close to the chest until the very end, which means that the cumulative effect of Imma’s adventures (Imma is only one of her many by-names, but it’s my favorite and I’m tired of “the protagonist”) might be wearying for some readers. Despite how entrancing I tend to find Tanith Lee’s writing, even I found myself getting a little worn down by the lack of apparent progression, especially given that a pattern is gradually detectable in events, making one feel as though the novel is trapped in a loop.
To be clear, this was almost certainly intentional, a representation of Imma’s self-destructive emotional state as she drives herself into the same mistakes over and over. That doesn’t make it easier to read, however. There are some truly thrilling moments — this is the kind of novel that has Ben-Hur chariot races, collapsing cities, and disturbingly large lizards as a matter of course — but someone reading along in search of easy fun and a nice three-act structure will be disappointed.
The troubling bit is that most of this is in service of concealing the novel’s big secret, which is fine and dandy but probably didn’t warrant so much effort. When the final reveal arrives (by means of, again, a very bizarre bit of deus ex machina that comes completely out of nowhere), one is left thinking “all right, yeah, that makes sense” but also with the sensation that though the resolution satisfies most of the remaining questions, the only one it fails to answer is why some of this couldn’t have been doled out over the course of the text. While I do think Lee’s conceit is effective in moderation, I’m also fairly certain that the necessity of hoarding so much information right to the end robbed the earlier text of some momentum.
Overall, though, I quite enjoyed The Birthgrave. It’s certainly unique, and features a protagonist whose voice is difficult to forget. While it shows some mistakes of the first time novelist, it also demonstrates Lee’s talent and affinity for painting with words. I recently recommended it (with some reservations) to a friend, and I think I’ll probably do so again should the opportunity arise.