1978’s Night’s Master, by Tanith Lee, is volume one of the Tales of the Flat Earth. Set in the days when “the Earth was flat and floated on the ocean of chaos,” this is less a novel than a collection of three two-part novellas connected by a recurring character, the eponymous Night’s Master, the great and powerful demon prince Azhrarn.
Azhrarn loves beauty almost as much as he revels in malice.
Book One: Light Underground
Azhrarn saves baby Sivesh from certain death, not because he has any pity for the child’s dying mother, but because the demon can see that Sivesh will grow into a young man of unparalleled beauty. Unfortunately for Sivesh, he tires of life as a pampered treasure in the Underground. Rejection is one slight Azhrarn will not forgive.
Years later, a cursed collar of silver spreads malice across the human world, no doubt delighting Azhrarn in his hidden palace. What the demon cannot foresee is the role the necklace will play, inspiring the blind poet Kizer to find and redeem Farazhin Flower-born; the demon will have his revenge but he will never forget the truth the poet revealed to Azhrarn.
The prose isn’t particularly explicit, but the work does justify its “adult fantasy” label in the first story. There’s demon on human gay sex, followed by such unusual couplings as human on humanoid-flower and kobald-on-giant-spider sex. Triumphs of sensuality over convention! And in the case of the kobald and giant spider, possibly basic anatomy as well1. The sex is mostly consensual (although later in the book it is not), although it’s a good question whether either Sivesh or Farazhin had the context for informed consent. Few of these couplings end well, mainly because nothing involving the demons ends well: they are destructive and cruel by nature, even when they think they are being loving.
Book Two: Tricksters
Dread king Zorashad has the bad luck to come to Azhrarn’s attention. Zorashad’s infant daughter Zorayas is the only member of Zorashad’s extended family of concubines and children to survive what follows, and she is left scarred and crippled, then subjected to a cavalcade of abuse from strangers. Once she is old enough to understand what was done to her, bitter enough to sacrifice her soul for power and beauty.
It falls to Mirrash the gloomy, the one man able to resist the transformed Zorayas, to deal with the aftermath of Zorayas’ deal with Azhrarn.
It seems to me Zorayas loses a lot of power when she trades being the sorceress-queen of seventeen lands in favour of becoming a woman so beautiful (almost) that no man can resist her. Why not a sorceress-queen so beautiful no man can resist her, ruling over as much of the world as she can conquer?
Book Three: The World’s Lure
Piqued by Bisuneh’s purity, Azhrarn sets out to ruin her life, which of course is easy for a demon prince to accomplish. The aftermath sees two half-souled people, one too male for rational thought and the other too female for agency, whose salvation depends on finding each other.
Years later, the demon prince finally gets his comeuppance; the legacy of his ill deeds leaves him the choice between embracing death or something much worse.
The days when the Earth was flat and floated on the ocean of chaos might have had very open views about who could sleep with who (or what), but the period apparently had strict guidelines as to what characteristics were essentially masculine and which essentially feminine. Oh, well. It was the 1970s.
We learn that demons are bad news and that trouble will follow boinking one of them; that’s to be expected. We are also given a brief glimpse of the gods of this world; they are arrogant jerks who have abandoned all responsibility for their creation. Bad is bad, but good is apparently worse. That’s unexpected.
Don’t start this book anticipating one long narrative; it’s a cycle of fairy tales focusing on this world’s analog of Satan (although Azhrarn was bad from the start; he’s no fallen angel). Azhrarn gets his kicks from tormenting humans. And from having sex with them. Or both, combined.
I expect that by 1970s standards, this was a daring book. By modern standards, Lee’s prose is allusive rather than forthright; the naughty stuff is carefully blurred. If you enjoy Lee’s expert command of English prose, this need not be a drawback.
I enjoyed this book. It was quite short, and I would have liked it to be longer. However, the rest of the series may assuage my cravings.
Unfortunately, Night’s Master seems to be very much out of print. There was a 2009 edition, but that line was discontinued. The good news is the early print runs were published in an era when print runs were huge; it should not be that difficult to find a used copy.
1: I am reminded of the 2000 novel Angry Young Spaceman. When the AYS and his squid-girl love interest decide to have sex, they discover that their respective species canoodle in entirely different ways. But young lovers are very ingenious when they need to be.