Sabella’s little secret

Sabella or The Blood Stone — Tanith Lee
Sabella, book 1


Tanith Lee’s 1980 Sabella or The Blood Stone straddles science fiction and fantasy.

Nova Mars is the world Old Mars never was: an ancient, dying world once home to complex ecologies and an advanced civilization, a world whose revivification at the hands of human terraformers came too late to save its natives from extinction. New Mars is now a thoroughly human world. All that remains of the natives are ruins and relics.

Sabella lives by herself, an attractive, if eerie looking, eccentric recluse with a fondness for dark clothing, an aversion to sunlight and oh, yes, a taste for blood.

She can make do with animal blood, but human is so much better.

Over the years, Sabella has learned to manage her peculiar appetites. She used to kill with every feeding; now she leaves her partners weakened but alive. Unaware that they have furnished Sabella’s meals, her victims crave yet more kinky sex with her. These urges, if fulfilled, can only end in their deaths.

Fearful of being revealed for the monster that she is, Sabella is alarmed to discover that her late aunt Cassi had stumbled onto Sabella’s secret before Cassi died. Not satisfied with a poison-pen letter to her niece, religious fanatic Cassi took steps to ensure Sabella’s exposure and death.

That plan depended on private investigator Sand. He was counselled to lure Sabella into situations that would make her vulnerable. Too bad that Sand isn’t much of a PI. He’s all to open to Sabella’s charms and far too enamoured of her to avoid the lethal side-effects of her passion. Despite Sabella’s best efforts, Sand becomes yet another body buried under the dunes of Nova Mars. It’s a sad outcome, but for Sabella, unremarkable.

Then Sand’s protective brother Jace comes looking for Sand. Jace understands beings like Sabella far better than Sabella herself does.


For the record, this is another Tanith Lee novel featuring an orphan1.

This is one of the dozen or so Tanith Lee novels that I own in their first mass market paperback edition (Not a huge number but part of the purpose of this project to address my oversight of Lee’s books.). I’ve never really cared for Sabella and I am not sure why. I suspect that at least part of it was due to the quirk that when I was nineteen, I liked my SF to be SF and my fantasy to be fantasy. I certainly didn’t want vampires in my science fiction2.

I suspect my comparative unfamiliarity with Lee also played a role in my earlier reaction to this novel. The Big Reveal at the end of the novel seemed to come out of nowhere. Now, having lately read other early works like The Birthgrave, I recognize that this was one of her favourite authorial gambits: the twist of the kaleidoscope that rearranges all the plot pieces in a different pattern.

This is clearly Lee’s version of one of the pre-space probe planetary romances, like the Northwest Smith stories. Writing in 1980, she could not plausibly set her story on our Mars, which had been shown to be an unlikely home for advanced life. So she imagines an Old-Mars-like world circling another star. This is basically the same solution that Leigh Brackett adopted; she shifted the setting for her Eric John Stark stories away from an astronomically obsolete Solar System to distant systems that were then beyond science’s setting-killing scrutiny.

Indeed … I wonder if Lee had a specific planetary romance in mind. This book could be read as a response to C. L. Moore’s famous short story,“Shambleau.” Lee’s book takes the monster’s perspective rather than that of her prospective meal.

I had thought this was a standalone but apparently Kill the Dead is connected to this in some way. I suspect that a reading of Kill the Dead looms in my near future….

I don’t know of a current North American edition of Sabella. UK residents can find a copy here.

1: Do I need to start a running count? Well, yes. I’m tempted to put it off, but I realize that if I do not do it now, it will be a more daunting task later.


Missing or dead mothers

Missing or dead fathers

The Birthgrave



The Storm Lord






Drinking Sapphire Wine



Night’s Master






Death’s Master









I don’t want to read too much into a small data set, but it seems to me that it’s likely that losing one’s parents is a recurring theme in Tanith Lee novels. I do not know quite how to quantify this, but my impression is that Lee pays more attention to the missing moms than to the absent dads. Both go missing, but the text dwells in greater detail on the fates of the women.

2: It’s just as well that I didn’t read A. Bertram Chandler’s Frontiers of the Dark until I was older, because teen me would have been very unhappy with the idea of Werewolves! IN SPAAACE! Although really, the fact that Greek gods showed up in Chandler’s SF should have tipped me off that he didn’t pay much attention to genre boundaries.

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