Wednesday, February 12, 2014
The Storm Lord by Tanith Lee
I have praised Tanith Lee’s short stories numerous times on this blog, and this week I decided to tackle Storm Lord, one of her long DAW epics. Storm Lord was first published in 1976, and the cover with its Gino d’Achille painting promises over 340 pages of guys sword fighting, sexy girls, and giant snakes. Does Storm Lord deliver?
Well, there are plenty of snakes. There is a bit of fighting with swords and knives. There are many beautiful women, and while there are few explicit sex scenes, sex is one of the main topics of the book. The sex is generally between men and prostitutes, or involves men taking women by force, and there are hints of incest; perhaps Lee was appealing to people with unconventional erotic fantasies?
This is one of those novels in which there are lots of royal, noble, and clerical characters, all having sexual intrigues and stabbing each other in the back, seeking power and revenge, and also lots of towns, regions, and rivers. Everybody and everyplace has a wacky fantasy name so at times I had a little trouble keeping track of who was who and where they were from and how they were all related to each other. The little frontispiece map doesn’t help, as many of the places in the text are not marked on it. Embarrassingly, at one point a character was reminiscing about how he felt when he was between Migsha and Ilah, and at first I thought he meant when he was in bed with two whores; eventually I remembered that Migsha and Ilah were villages.
This novel takes place, as the cover says, on an alien world; on pages 21 and 122 it is implied it was colonized by Earthmen over a thousand years ago. The current technology level is ancient/medieval; swords, catapults, sailing ships, chariots. There are lots of strange beasts with weird names on the planet: the zeeba (a hoofed mount, I guess a zebra), the palutorvus (a big mount that comes from a swamp), the owar (they use its hide to make tents), the kalinx (an aggressive sort of cat used in hunts like the hounds used in English fox hunting), the tirr (a big powerful carnivorous monster) and others. Some of these animals Lee doesn’t describe; in my mind, palutorvus is a brontosaurs. Rawr.
There are also Earth-derived creatures, like over-sized man-eating wolves, cows, lions, horses, and lots of snakes of all sizes. The people are human, but a little strange; the ruling ethnic group, the Vis, dark-skinned brunettes, are strongly influenced by the appearance of a particular star in the heavens: it makes the Vis men sexually agitated and dulls their judgment. The blonde Plains people are immune to this effect, and more importantly, have the ability to communicate with each other via telepathy.
The Storm Lord is somewhat entertaining, but that’s it. I’m giving it a marginal recommendation. Lee is a good writer, but the book feels cold, distant, I didn’t get a sense of a point of view or much passion. I didn’t care who killed who or who got to be Storm Lord or who had sex with who; none of the characters won my sympathy or interest, partly because there are so many characters and we don't get to know any well, partly because most are jerks and most of the rest are messianic.
What actually happens in The Storm Lord? If you are curious, read on!
The Storm Lord is split into six books.
BOOK ONE: THE AMBER WITCH
The Storm Lord (a sort of Emperor of the Vis) is poisoned by his wife, Val Mara, and the head Councilor, Amnorh, who are secret lovers. The Storm Lord’s death is blamed on the amber-haired Plains woman he was sleeping with when he died, Ashne’e; she is a priestess of the snake goddess the Plains people worship. The Councilor rapes Ashne’e.
The Vis have a weird custom; the most recently conceived son of a Storm Lord is the heir to the throne. Val Mara is pregnant, but if Ashne’e gives birth to a son, Ashne’e’s son will be the legitimate Storm Lord. (Of course, both children could really be Amnorh’s, but that's a secret!) Val Mara, a ruthless woman who loves to torture people, wants Ashne’e murdered, but the Councilor is not only using Ashne'e sexually but is trying to get her to teach him the magic secrets of the snake goddess cult. Ashne’e also has her own psychic abilities to protect herself. So both women succeed in giving birth, but Ashne’e dies while her son is still an infant. Too closely associated with Ashne’e, Amnorh has to leave town and go into hiding.
Lee does things in the book which I guess are supposed to shock you. Babies are sacrificed to the gods, and Ashne’e cuts off one of her child’s fingers hours after it is born (a ruse to trick Val Mara into thinking the baby has died.) Pregnancy is said to turn Val Mara and Ashne’e from beautiful women into ugly ones. This equivocal attitude towards babies was also an element of Lee’s The Birthgrave, which I read years ago.
BOOK TWO: RUINS AND BRIGHT TOWERS
Ashne’e’s son is now an adult, having been raised among the Plains people and given the name Raldnor. He doesn’t fit in with them, lacking telepathic abilities and being subject to sex madness when the red star is in the sky, so when his foster mother dies he becomes a wanderer. In the company of some craftsmen he travels to a city; Val Mara’s son Amrek, the reigning Storm Lord, is also in town. Amrek gets his hands on Raldnor’s girlfriend, the innocent white-haired Anici, while Raldnor is at a brothel (Anici doesn’t put out) and she dies of fright! Amrek hates Plains people (he blames the Plains snake cult for his deformities, which include an extra finger) and tries to throw them all out of the city, so Raldnor dyes his hair. Not knowing what to do with his life, he joins the elite guard of Amrek’s Councilor, Kathaos. Amrek, who seems to hate everybody, also hates Kathaos. (He can’t just fire Kathaos because Kathaos is a prince of one of the component states of the empire. Politics!)
BOOK THREE: THE METEORIC HERO
Raldnor becomes a skilled fighting man and, through a bizarre series of events which includes chopping off a guy’s hand (lots of people get their hands cut or cut off in this novel), finds himself Amrek the Storm Lord’s right hand man!
Raldnor gets command of his own regiment and when he travels to the capital he becomes very popular with the ladies because he is so good looking and so good in bed. But he keeps having terrible dreams about Anici. Bizarrely, Amrek’s betrothed, the red-haired princess Astaris, the most beautiful woman in the world, also dreams of Anici, whom she never met! While Amrek is off crushing rebels far away, Raldnor and Astaris become lovers. (Their first embrace takes place after an earthquake kills Astaris’s guards and leaves them alone together.)
Of course there are those who would like to see Raldnor dead, like that guy with one hand left, and Val Mara, the Queen and the father of Amrek, who suddenly realizes who Raldnor really is. Kathaos also figures out that Raldnor is the legitimate Storm Lord, and thinks to use this to his advantage. These enemies catch up to Raldnor and learn he is sleeping with Astaris, and he only barely escapes, severely wounded. The officer who hides him and has him healed reveals to Raldnor his true parents and heritage.
BOOK FOUR: HELL’S BLUE BURNING SEAS
Amrek can’t bring himself to execute the beautiful Astaris, so he has her sneaked away. In a tropical corner of the empire she is sold into slavery, whipped and raped, and eventually ends up in the stable of Amnorh, who has been living in hiding out here as a minor, but wealthy, princeling. He has become a religious fanatic, a devotee of the snake goddess of the Plains, so after raping Astaris he makes her drink a jungle poison that turns her into a statue, making of her a monument to the snake goddess.
Raldnor sails on a ship. The ship is unlucky, once almost sinking because of a storm, once almost sinking because of a volcano that rises from the waves. Lost, the ship comes to an uncharted island where most of the crew dies from eating poison fruit. Finally, the ship comes to a place inhabited by Plains people that is so far from the Vis that the natives have never heard of the Vis or the Storm King. Raldnor meets a wise woman who lives in the woods; she helps him tap his unrealized telepathic powers. Then he travels around the country, from city to city, a kind of messiah, telling all of the evil of the Storm Lord and uniting them to march off to save the other Plains people who live under threat from Amrek.
BOOK FIVE: THE SERPENT WAKES
Raldnor and his supporters do lots of politicking, gain allies, and start their guerrilla war on the Vis. In perhaps the best part of the book (pages 291-293), good because it fleshes out some of the characters and inspires some kind of human feeling, there is a flashback to Val Mara’s early life, when, a beautiful 14-year-old in a provincial town, she meets the Storm Lord Rehdon and seduces him, and he takes her to the capital and makes her his chief queen. We get a sense as to why she is so sado-masochistic, why she likes torturing people and desires to be treated like a whore.
(Don’t expect Storm Lord to show up on the list of your local feminist book club.)
The allied army marches to the Vis capital. Kathaos and some former friends and lovers of Raldnor (some of the many characters I haven’t mentioned in this summary) try to assassinate him, but fail. Amrek’s army marches out of the capital to face Raldnor’s army, but before the battle can really get going an earthquake strikes and totally destroys the capital, and Val Mara along with it. Kathaos murders Amrek.
BOOK SIX: SUNRISE
A year later a new peaceful town grows near the ruined capital. The Vis and everybody else have joined the Plains people in worshiping the snake goddess. Raldnor, his messianic mission concluded, travels to the jungles where Amnorh turned Astaris into a statue. On the very day Raldnor arrives, Amnorh’s jungle wife, who has been cheating on him, poisons Amnorh to death. Raldnor is able to awaken Astaris from her sleep, and the two lovers disappear into the jungle together. The End.