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The Book of the Damned, Tanith Lee – a review

The three stories in this book are set in the town of Paradys (Paradis) in Northern France over a time period that spans from the Middle Ages to the early 20th century.

Each have gender as their central theme, and each contains a transition of some kind from male to female or female to male. They are full of such dualism – male and female; dark and light; life, death and rebirth. The three central characters can be seen as one recurring character. Certainly the female writer in the third story takes her nom-de-plume from the poet in the first story – St Jean, and Jhane could easily be a feminine version of Jean. This idea is reinforced by a line in the third story.

A jinn promises to show a man the face of the devil.

“The traveller stood before the curtain. It fell and rippled like water, or perhaps steam. After a moment or so, it swirled and opened, and in the opening showed a stern face in middle life, bearded, with shrewd dark eyes… The face he had been shown in the mist was his own.”

“Look again, and I will show you the face of God… So the man looked again at the mist or steam, and it parted… It was the same face, shrewd and bearded, just out of its prime.”

The tales each have their own central colour and an object that leads the bearer to their destruction. Red – a ruby ring. Yellow – a topaz crucifix. Blue – a sapphire earring.

The Book of the Damned is an intensely spiritual book, full of esoteric and Gnostic references. I suspect that there are layers of meaning that I have yet to discover. It is certainly a dense read, but the beautiful language and imagery makes it intensely enjoyable, as in the opening lines of the first tale, Stained with Crimson.

“How fast does a man run, when the devil is after him?

I was seeing it, but unknowingly, as he came towards me up the cobbled hill, his breath cawing with effort, his eyes colourless and bright.”

and later,

“We see with our eyes but cannot see our eyes, except in a mirror. In the mirror, looking, I scored it across with the small diamond in a ring – and was answered. The glass was scored again, back and forth – from inside. Magic. Symbol. There will be coherence in patches – A spider: female devouring male – and phases of speech like the moon.”

If you enjoy being challenged you will be rewarded by this book. It is a beautiful achievement and is likely to haunt you long after you read the final page.

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