The Secret Books of Paradys is a series I have half-read. I’ll level with you: this is Tanith Lee at her very arch, and if your mind wanders for a second you get lost in the language or even drown in it. This month has not been a good one for keeping my head afloat in my reading, and since I decided to reread something familiar for comfort, I’m not, for once, going to let my lack of completion bother me and neither should you.
The stories in these books take place in a fantastic Paris, from late antiquity to the modern day. The volumes contain short stories, novellas, and one complete novel. This last is The Book of the Beast. I first read it many years ago, and it’s my favorite (of what I have finished of the series so far). Still, I don’t love it as much as I used to, and some of that is just me growing up and getting older, plus being more sensitive to some problematic storytelling.
The Book of the Beast
“By the end of the first night, he knew his lodging was haunted. By the night’s first minute, he should have guessed.”
The Book of the Beast begins with a frame story about a scholar who moves to Paradys to study at the university. He gets lodging in an old house whose family, d’Uscaret, has become extinct. There is a curse on the house, and he gets a lesson in its backstory from Helise, who was once married to Heros d’Uscaret and now is trapped in the gardens and tower of the house.
Helise’s story is an inversion of Cupid and Psyche, the kind of play of myth and fairy tale that I love and Lee does so well. Helise is warned that she is marrying a monster but Heros is, at least on the outside, perfect. Their marriage is cold and unconsummated while his family treats her horribly, leading Helise to make a terrible mistake.
I admit that in my younger years I adored this story because I imagined Heros looking like my defining crush, so I sympathized with Helise. But reading it now, I’m not so sure. Helise seeks out a love potion to make Heros want her and, because this is a story, it has the intended effect. Love potions are sold as romantic, but I’ve studied a few of them, especially from the late antique/early Christian period. They are basically recipes for date rape drugs. The only good news is that I can’t imagine any of them worked. So while I pity Helise in her ignorance, and her desperation, I can’t say I’m comfortable with how she resolved it. Of course, given what happens to Heros and her, she doesn’t need my moralizing.
The novel also gives the origin of the evil that plagues the d’Uscaret family. A Roman soldier, unhappy with his Christian wife and his lousy outpost, meets an exotic woman who offers to turn his life around. I enjoyed this part, because as a scholar of Hellenistic/Roman-era Egypt, well, it resonated with my studies.
The Book of the Beast ends happily, if not for everyone. I won’t give the story away, but this novel has one of my favorite closing lines of ever: “These two knew together more happiness than most, less pain than many. They seldom spoke of death. Like the draining of the river, such things were the concern of God.”
The Book of the Dead
If you’re curious about Paradys and just want to dip your toes into the madness, this volume is a collection of short stories and may be just the ticket. My favorite is “The Weasel’s Bride,” which has the benefit of being an original fairy tale coupled with a horror short story. Enjoy!
Well, that’s Tanuary 2021. Thanks for reading, and see you next year!