You can fall for chains of silver, you can fall for chains of gold/You can fall for pretty strangers and the promises they hold

A Bed of Earth — Tanith Lee
The Secret Books of Venus, book 3

bed-of-earth

2002’s A Bed of Earth is the third novel in Tanith Lee’s The Secret Books of Venus.

A few yards of dirt in a Venus graveyard is all it took to trigger the long-running feud between the powerful della Scorpia and Barbaron clans. To surrender that narrow patch of land would show weakness and betray the family honour. Better bloodshed and death than dishonour!

Betrothed to Lord Ciara, 14-year-old Merelda della Scorpia prefers the dashing musician Lorenzo. The betrothal serves her grasping family’s goals, but eloping with Lorenzo serves Meralda’s heart. There is no real question which option the naive teen will choose.

Alas for Merelda, intercepting the two lovers and handing them over to vindictive, malevolent Lord Ciara serves Andrea Barbaron’s sense of comic malice.

Lorenzo does not long survive Lord Ciara’s hospitality. Merelda does; Lord Ciara is unwilling to settle for simply killing her; he prefers a more perverse vengeance. Merelda is alive when Lord Ciara sends her away from Eel Island, but … nobody ever sees her again. Alive? Dead? Alive but writhing in torment? No living person knows.


And that’s just the backstory! A generation later, we focus on Beatrixa Barbaron, the sole legitimate daughter of Andrea Barbaron. She is of considerable interest to the enigmatic Silvio, an uncanny boy with gifts no mortal can match and a connection to the long-vanished Merelda that none would guess. When they meet as children, Silvio candidly reveals he is a della Scorpio; Barbaron and della Scorpio can only be bitter enemies. No hope of friendship here.

For a bitter enemy armed with magical gifts almost beyond imagination, Silvio proves oddly unwilling to escalate to outright murder. Harassing his opponents—although not Beatrixa—with supernatural flamingos, yes, and terrifying would-be rapists into leaping into a lagoon they lack the skill to swim across, also yes. Simply striking down the Barbarons, particularly Beatrixa, not so much.

Silvio has forgotten the first rule of convoluted vengeance schemes: never fall in love with your enemy.

 ~oOo~

While the above is going on, a Chesare Borja (who is a lot more successful than the Cesare Borgia of our world) unifies Italy. Good for him, but I don’t generally have time for the B plots in books like this, particularly when the A plot is as convoluted as it is in A Bed of Earth.

Although this is set in Venus, Lee’s otherworldly version of Venice, not land-locked Verona, I would not be surprised if one inspiration was

Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life;
Whole misadventured piteous overthrows
Do with their death bury their parents’ strife.

Lee tackled the matter of Romeo and Juliet in 1983’s Sung in Shadow. A Bed of Earth, written fifteen years later, is not the one to one mapping that Sung in Shadow was. Meralda is as young and as naive as Juliet, but Lorenzo isn’t this book’s Romeo. In fact, he is more of a George Wickham, although he does not deserve his ultimate fate.

Silvio for his part also need not fear death, being—living proof isn’t the right phrase—more evidence that, to quote Evelyn Barber, you cannot say “necromancy” without “romance”. Beatrixa is saved from Juliet’s dismal fate because while as vulnerable to infatuation as any person, she is too sensible to end up dead in a crypt1 over love and poor communication. The resolute Beatrixa navigates hazards natural and supernatural with impressive skill. Other women of the city of Venus are forced to choose between domestic servitude or disgrace; Beatrixa goes her own way.

Thanks entirely to me reading too much in “The Secret Books” part of the series name, I expected the lush decadence of The Secret Books of Paradys. The Secret Books of Venus may begin with malice and cruelty. This volume, at least, ends with repentance and reconciliation.

A Bed of Earth is available here.

1: I don’t consider something mentioned in the sixth line of the opening stanza of a 400+-year-old play as a spoiler but just in case: those of you who want to be surprised when Juliet kills herself, don’t read the preceding.

Title

Missing or dead mothers

Missing or dead fathers

The Birthgrave

1

1

The Storm Lord

1

1

Volkhavaar

2

2

Drinking Sapphire Wine

0

0

Night’s Master

2

1

Shadowfire

2

1

Death’s Master

3

3

Sabella

1

1

Day By Night

1

2

Silver Metal Lover

0

0

Delusion’s Master

1

1

Cyrion

0

0

Anakire

2

1

Sung in Shadow

1

0

The White Serpent

1

1

The Book of the Beast

0

1

Electric Forest

1

0

The Book of the Mad

1

2*

Lycanthia

0

0

A Heroine of the World

1

1

The Winter Players

0

2

Delirium’s Mistress

1

0

The Blood of Roses

2

1

Castle of Dark

1

0

Prince on a White Horse

0

0

Heart-Beast

0

0

Quest for the White Witch

1

0

Shon the Taken

0

0

Black Unicorn

1

1

Gold Unicorn

0

1

Dark Dance

1

1

Personal Darkness

1

1

Darkness, I

0

0

Wolf Tower

1

1

Faces Under Water

0

0

Red Unicorn

0

1

Saint Fire

1

0

A Bed of Earth

1

1

Total

32

27*

* Includes one uncle.


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