1988’s The Book of the Damned is the first volume in Tanith Lee’s four volume series, The Secret Books of Paradys.
“Paradys” is an example of what our pals Kœssler and Derocquigny called “faux amis du traducteur” or “false friends.” That is also a good term for the boon companions someone might find in Paradys. Paradys, this fantasy world’s answer to Paris, may sound like Paradise, but anyone seeking a lost Eden or even a walled garden in Paradys is a fool.
There are quite a lot of fools, as it turns out.
Stained with Crimson:
Andre St. Jean’s deliciously decadent life holds little pleasure for him, although one might think it should. The cold and distant Antonia should not be irresistible for Andre, although she is. Death should be the end for both Andre and Antonia, and yet it isn’t….
I have no idea why my first reaction to this story is that it reminded me of Poe. Poe had considerably fewer depraved bisexuals in his stories.
This is a rather ouroborosian tale of cursed magic, gender-switching vampirism (or things that will do until a real vampire comes along), and doomed obsessions. It’s possible there is a time loop as well. About the most positive thing one can say about Andre and Antonia is that their fixation on each other at least limits the number of innocent bystanders1 they take down with them, although it does not reduce it to zero.
Malice in Saffron:
Raped by her step-father, Jehanine flees to Paradys, seeking her beloved brother Pierre’s solace and protection. He, of course, refuses to believe her and spurns her as a fallen woman. Jehanine responds to this shocking mistreatment by creating not one but two new identities for herself; one a nun, devoted to god (but perhaps not to the same god as her sisters in faith), and one a bandit, as cruel and depraved as any other man in Paradys….
If I were republishing this book, I would insert a trigger warning at the beginning of this story. It starts off with a brutal rape, then moves on to more rape. And plague. And murder. And rape. And the incessant Satanism doesn’t seem to help matters.
Empires of Azure:
Haunted by the ghost of the late Timonie, the famed female impersonator Louis de Jenier is (eventually) spirited out of Paradys by his allies. It is sadly too late to save Louis, but not too late for journalist St Jean to unravel the truth behind the haunting. Of course, this being Paradys, St Jean would have been well-advised to turn a blind eye….
The good news is that St Jean (and by extension the reader) has a much better grasp of the history of Paradys by the end of the story. We learn, for example, where the name comes from. The bad news is its past is tied to ancient pagan gods and they are not as dead as they could be.
I may just call this review “trigger warning.” The people of Paradys only rise from their comfortable couches to do unspeakable things to each other. Sometimes those unspeakable things are consensual, but more often, not. Generally I don’t care for that aspect of Lee, but it works here—at least on an aesthetic level.
Perhaps I should have used the word “debauched” more often. Ah, well.
Each of these novellas was just the right length: long enough to savour the destructive decadence of Paradys and its inhabitants, short enough that the reader does not become bored or jaded. I am not completely certain that all of the stories make linear sense (they are perhaps opium dreams in prose) but the prose is very pretty, so I don’t mind. And I am the sort of person who wants all his crayolas lined up in the proper order so that is saying a lot.
The Book of the Damned is available on its own
1: For fairly loose values of innocent.