Saturday, June 14, 2014

Cyrion by Tanith Lee

In 1979 and 1980 British writer Tanith Lee wrote six short stories about a fantasy adventurer named Cyrion who "resembles an angel" with his hair "blonde as ice," face handsome and attire tasteful.  These stories appeared in sword and sorcery anthologies and SF periodicals, and in 1982 were collected by DAW, along with new framing material, a new short story and a new 110 page novella, in a 304-page paperback.  I recently purchased a battered copy of this paperback, Cyrion, DAW No. 499.  It includes a frontispiece map which was apparently drawn by Lee herself.  One wonders if DAW paid Lee extra for this.

Lee's setting appears to be largely inspired by the Eastern Mediterranean during the period of the Crusades; there are white-skinned people from "the West," the people in the coastal cities are olive-skinned, and the people of the desert are swarthy; there is a religious order of knights from the West which wields considerable political influence; the landscape is dotted with ancient ruins of an imperial people famous for their love of bathing and their mighty legions; and so forth.  To this realistic milieu Lee adds wizards, ghosts, and demons. 

Cyrion, our hero, is a pale Westerner who has spent much time among the desert nomads, so Lee can write him as a well-dressed city sophisticate in one story and in the next as a veteran traveler clad in a plain robe and well-versed in desert lore and the aphoristic wisdom of the desert people. Cyrion is a superlative swordsman and extremely fast and agile (again and again he moves "like lightning") but he resolves the challenges he faces in these stories with cunning, quick thinking, and trickery.  He is a genius detective and a master of disguise, and some of the stories have the form of a murder mystery or a traditional gothic novel.

These stories are good and I liked them, but I didn't love them ("One Night of the Year" and "Cyrion in Bronze" comeclosest to the "love" level.)  The prologues and "interlogues" are meant to be funny and include slapstick, with people spilling wine and tripping and so forth.  Most of the actual Cyrion stories are lacking in tension because Cyrion is so self-confident and insouciant that you never get the feeling that he is in danger.  With a few exceptions, the episodes in the book are light-hearted; I prefer adventure stories that generate tension and fear, and a sense of accomplishment or relief when the plot is resolved.  Cyrion often effortlessly outwits his foes in a way that reminded me of Bugs Bunny or Woody Woodpecker.

So, what actually happens to Cyrion in these stories?  If you are curious, read on!

The Honey Garden
The seven interlogues and two prologues serve as a framing device for the stories.  An aristocrat, Roilant, comes to an inn in Heruzala, hoping to find Cyrion, whose aid he requires.  The other patrons of the inn tell Roilant tales about Cyrion, and in the final novella Roilant meets Cyrion and they participate in the adventure together.

Cyrion in Wax
A "magus" who makes voodoo dolls (Lee doesn't actually use the word "voodoo") has everybody in the town of Jebba intimidated.  Cyrion is not intimidated--he picks a fight with the dollmaker.  Cyrion has been living with a high class prostitute for months; this painted and bejeweled courtesan has a pet rodent which has the habits of a pack rat.  When the magus makes a doll of Cyrion and begins torturing him, Cyrion enlists the rat to steal the doll.  Cyrion uses the prostitute's cosmetics to recolor the doll in the image of the magus himself, so that the spell backfires and kills its caster.

A Hero at the Gates
Travelling through the desert Cyrion comes to a walled town whose citizens live under the cruel domination of a demon.  The nature and identity of the demon are obscure, but Cyrion, with his keen abilities of observation and his quick wits, is able to liberate the town.

One Night of the Year
This one is a murder mystery set in an aristocratic household in Teboras.  A beautiful nymphomaniac brunette has been murdered--was the murderer her brother, a soldier and wizard, who felt an incestuous desire for her?  Or her sister, a witch who envied her beauty and effect on men?  Or the resident priest and herbalist, who, while she was alive, resisted the brunette's advances?  Or a veteran soldier who was the household's senior servant, the brunette's lover and her brother's best friend?  Cyrion figures out the mystery, which was kind of obvious, and reminiscent of Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express.  Fortunately there are further mysteries beyond the murder mystery (e.g., the family consists of ancient ghosts who will not restuntil a third party solves the crime.)

This story includes the unconventional sex that Lee (whom the Village Voice proclaimed "Goddess-Empress of the Hot Read") is famous for, not just incest but also necrophilia.  The bizarre and perverse relationships between the members of the household made this story one of the more engaging and affecting of the Cyrion stories; I think some of these stories suffer because Cyrion is so unflappable, and so I appreciated the addition of five highly strung and passionate characters.

Cyrion in Bronze
Cyrion comes to a wizard's tower in the middle of the desert, where he battles a strange demon, one of the more interesting monsters I have encountered in my years of reading fantasy books and playing fantasy games.  Cyrion figures out how to defeat the demon, and when the wizard tries to trick him, Cyrion figures out how to trick the wizard in turn.  This story is structured much like "A Hero at the Gates," but is more clever and more fun.  Probably my favorite Cyrion story. 

The Murderous Dove
Cyrion gets mixed up in a secret war between two segments of a monastic order of knights, apparently based by Lee on the Knights Templar.  This is one of the more convoluted and outlandish Cyrion tales, and in my opinion one of the weaker ones.  People put on disguises, impersonate other people, and so forth, things which don't particularly interest me.  In one scene, an assassin throws a rock at Cyrion, and Cyrion dodges it, then, in a split second, realizes the velocity of the rock is too low to do him permanent harm, decides that he wants to get hit in the head by the rock so he can pretend to be unconscious and observe the assassin's actions, and so swerves back into the path of the missile.  This is a little beyond the limit of my ability to suspend disbelief.

Perfidious Amber
In the city of Andriok, Cyrion figures out the secret of a cursed ring, which kills its wearers under particular circumstances.  He uses this knowledge to save an empty-headed beauty from her murderous husband.  In this episode Cyrion disguises himself as a woman.

A Lynx with Lions
Cyrion responds to a call for help from Karuil-Ysem, the leader of a nomadic tribe among whom Cyrion lived for some years.   Karuil-Ysem's son has betrayed him.  The son wants to abandon the old ways of the desert and move the tribe to the city and become a merchant; thus Cyrion, who reveres the desert wisdom of the nomads, is more of a son to Karuil-Ysem than the nomad leader's own flesh and blood.  The treacherous son sorcerously enslaves demons and employs them to secretly kill his father in order to more quickly succeed him as leader of the tribe.  Cyrion is too late to save his spiritual father, but he allies with the demons and, after getting tortured by the nomads, he and the demons achieve vengeance and their liberty.

Lee fleshes out the world in which Cyrion lives a bit in this story.  In an apparent spoof of Christianity, we learn that the nomads' most revered prophet, who lived centuries earlier, was nailed to a cross but was rescued by the populace before he died.  Because of this, the nomads hate the figure of the cross, and strive to avoid creating it; for example, they only wield swords with curved blades, and the struts and chains of their tents do not form right angles where they intersect.  

Cyrion in Stone
Roilant, a "plump" and clumsy aristocrat living in Heruzala, as a child was betrothed to Eliset, a cousin from a branch of the family in Cassireia that had squandered its wealth.  As an adult, having met a suitable mate and not having seen Eliset for many years, he tried to break the engagement, only to be confronted by evidence that Eliset was a witch and would murder him and his beloved if he called off his wedding to Eliset.

Roilant enlists the aid of Cyrion, who disguises himself as Roilant and goes to Cassireia to deal with Eliset and another cousin of Roilant's, a ruthless rapist who is Eliset's lover.  Set in the seaside ruins of an ancient fortress, the story is chock a block with elements of 18th and 19th century gothic fiction.  There are imposters, ghosts, secret passages, black magic, poisonings, murders, seekers after revenge, faked deaths, rape, and women seeking independence from men.  There are a multitude of plot twists--almost everything we believe about the characters at the start of the story turns out to be untrue; the women we think are witches turn out to be innocent, and the women we think are innocent turn out to be sorceresses.

I thought much of this novella was quite good, the magic and the coven of misandrist witches in particular.  Some of Cyrion's disguises and plots struck me as ridiculous, however.  

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