Tanith Lee’s 1980 Kill the Dead is a secondary world fantasy novel.
Black-clad Parl Dro limps into town with a single purpose in mind: find his way to Ghyste Mortua, the city of the dead, where he will dispatch every lingering ghost he finds there. Despite his relentless determination, he lingers long enough to confront dead Cilny Soban, a decision that will have lingering consequences, not least of which is being saddled with a not especially useful sidekick.
Various plots unspool.
A. The monomaniacal deadalive sustain themselves through singular purpose and by preying on the living. Whatever good was in them when alive is erased by death. So Parl Dro’s experience tells him. Therefore, finding and burning the object that ties Cilny to the world is necessary, lest the dead girl drag her doting sister Ciddey into the grave. Ciddey disagrees. Unable to save Cilny from being dispatched, Ciddey commits suicide in a bid to transform herself into one of the angry deadalive. In this, she is successful. Her bid to avenge her sister proves a more difficult quest.
B. Travelling minstrel Myal Lemayal is too talented a musician to be popular and insufficiently adept as a thief to make his living stealing. His talent for self-pity has as yet to provide him with a steady living. However, the musician manages to earn his place in history through two demonstrations of poor judgment: he attaches himself to Parl, whose exploits would no doubt make a fine song, and he allows Ciddey to attach herself to him, ensuring exorcist and musician are dogged by an angry ghost.
C. Many exorcists have searched for Ghyste Mortua, whose entire population died in a massive landslide years before. No doubt a considerable number succeeded in finding it. None have managed to exorcise its angry host of shades. The evidence suggests no exorcist who ventured into the ghost town survived the experience.
D. It comes together. Not only will Myal Lemayal unwittingly facilitate entry into Ghyste Mortua, the deadalive will discover that Parl Dro is beyond their powers of malice. For reasons even Parl Dro does not suspect, the exorcist cannot be slain, not by the living nor by the dead. This alone will not guarantee success.
Jinkies! My first Tanith Lee novel in seven years! The ISFDB claims this is part of a series that includes Sabella. Having read both (although not in close proximity) I don’t see a connection, aside from having been included in the same omnibus.
This review is also my first Rediscovery since 22 November 2016. Odd to think that not only is that category the oldest category on my site, I expected that it would be the most common category. Journeys do not always lead where one expects, something that is directly relevant to the plot of Lee’s slender novel.
The novel does have a connection to the television show Blake’s Seven, although not in any sense of shared continuity. As Lee herself admitted in a 2013 edition of Kill the Dead, Parl Dro is based on actor Paul Darrow1, who played Kerr Avon in Blake’s Seven. Lee denied that Myal Lemayal was based on either Vila (Avon’s cowardly foil in Blake’s Seven) or on the actor who portrayed him, Michael Keating.
A question raised by the narrative: just how many adventurers accompanied by minstrels have there been? Parl Dro isn’t the Witcher and Myal isn’t Jaskier (for one thing, I’ve never wanted to see Jaskier tossed off a cliff, whereas to meet the endlessly whiny Myal is to wish for his demise) but I think each pair would find the other oddly familiar. This has to be parallel development.
This is a melancholy novel about unhappy people making bad choices in their quests to find answers to questions best left unasked. Some authors might want to work their way around to some sort of happy ending. Lee appears to have been entirely immune to the temptation, preferring to pursue her narrative’s core assumptions to their logical end.
Kill the Dead is a very slender novel. If first published today, it might have been classified as a novella. Nevertheless, Lee manages to cram in what some might say is an excessive number of plot twists, some more unexpected than others. She also manages to include a complete plot, an example from which other authors could take example.
Oddly, even though Tanith Lee’s books are usually much more likely to be available in the UK, I found the novel at neither Amazon UK nor Book Depository.
1: The name might be derived from Paul Darrow’s illegible scrawl.