1977’s Volkhavaar is probably counted as one of Tanith Lee’s minor works, but I suspect it’s one that a lot readers found endearing back in the Disco Era.
Life for Shaina the slave girl, kidnapped when she was very young, is a series of humiliations and beatings at the hands of her owners. Two events will change her dismal lot forever: a seemingly chance meeting with Barbayat, the Grey Lady from Cold Crag, and the appearance of Kernik, the Clever Showman and his troupe, in particular the exceedingly handsome Dasyel. Smitten with Dasyel, the young slave agrees to Barbayat’s terms: she will allow the ancient witch to feed on her blood in exchange for wisdom. Wisdom and power that can unite Shaina and Dasyel.
What Shaina does not know is that Kernik the Showman is merely the latest name of the grand villain Volkhavaar, servant of a dark and forgotten god. Dasyel, like all the players, is Volkhavaar’s thrall. What Volkhavaar has he does not willingly surrender.
Volkhavaar’s backstory parallels Shaina’s in many ways: he too lost his mother as a child; he too spent years as a pariah, scrabbling for existence at the bottom of society. But in Volkhavaar’s case, the other street children weren’t being just being mean (as people, in their xenophobic way, often will be), but were rejecting him because they sensed that inside Volkhavaar’s off-putting exterior was a heart incapable of love, a mind motivated entirely by a desire for power over others.
Having tried and failed in his efforts to re-establish the worship of his divine patron, the Lord of Night and Shadowed Places, Volkhavaar has come up with a far more cunning plan. So far, it is a success. When dukes cannot resist the sorcerer, what hope does one slave girl have?
Which brings us to how Shaina lost her head (literally) and how she dealt with that minor setback….
But first! A word about the cover: I didn’t realize that was a Whelan until I checked the cover credit. I’m not crazy about this artwork, no matter how unusual it is to see a woman on the cover of a DAW book of this vintage who is actually wearing clothes. It’s not up to Whelan’s standard.
Volkhavaar was born to a foreign woman from a land whose traders are all yellow skinned. he also is yellow-skinned. Let us observe a moment of silence for the unfortunate implications of that casting choice. It does make some sense in the plot, as his foreign appearance helps inspire the other street children to turn on him, and so helps to shape him into the monster he becomes 1.
The witch Barbayat, in contrast, turns out to be a reasonably trustworthy mentor who can offer much of value to a young girl. That blood-drinking thing is just a fair trade according to the rules of this world’s magic: extended youth in exchange for much-needed wisdom.
I have to say that Lee takes an extremely dim view not just of slavery as an institution, but also of the sort of people who own slaves. Shaina’s owners are uniformly loathsome. At one point it seems that an owner just might have felt some concern for Shaina
But a few moments later, the altercation took on a new note—grief.
but it’s soon clear that the owner Is not motivated by humanitarian concerns:
[ “Oh!” she shrieked, “The slave is sick! All the good food wasted I have given her, and the good money Old Ash paid for her! Oh, a thousand tears!
There are occasional hints that Shaina’s objection to slavery is mostly because of the inconvenience and deprivation she suffers, and is not a principled opposition to the very idea of owning people. Ah, well, she’s a typical person of her secondary world.
In the end (spoiler) mostly good wins out over extreme evil. That’s as I expected given that the story is very nearly a fairy tale; what I did not expect is that after winning her handsome man, Shaina is able to distinguish between being smitten and actually wanting to spend the rest of her life with the fellow. Love is important to Shaina, but it’s not the most important thing.
This is explicitly described as a cyclic world—the same kind of events occur over and over 2—so there was room for a sequel. Room for endless sequels, more than Eddings and Brooks combined! But Lee was sensible enough to see such sequels would merely be recapitulating the original, not building on it. Would that more authors heeded her example.
1: Volkhavaar’s backstory is in parts so over the top as to remind one of Heinz Doofenschmitz. But it’s clear he was always an evil child: early mistreatment just defined the shape that his malevolence took.
2: I find myself asking “if evil always rises to be crushed by good, why does evil not learn from this?” The plot of the book gives me an answer: Volkhavaar rises and falls twice and the lesson he learns from his first failure isn’t “be less evil” but “do that thing that didn’t work the first time, harder.”