It’s Tanuary again! This year I’ve chosen The Gods are Thirsty: A Novel of the French Revolution to get me started.
I’ve been aware of this book since I moved to my current house and first visited the local library, where this was the largest Tanith Lee book on their shelves. Though probably something I would have loved in college, when my French Revolution fandom was at its peak, for seventeen years I have resisted reading this. Why? Because it’s pure historical fiction, unique among Lee’s writings, which means it doesn’t have any elves or lasers in it. I wanted magic and romance and this book promised none of the former and, well, a different flavor of the latter to what I was looking for. Plus, it’s over 500 pages long, and I don’t read as fast as I used to. The first few pages didn’t get me excited, neither.
But then I came upon the Ladies of Horror fiction #LadiesFirst22 challenge. That challenge was to read a LOHF author’s book as your first of the year. That, combined with my new tradition of Tanuary, dovetailed nicely. With a month to dedicate myself, surely I could finish this book and maybe, maybe I would enjoy it.
But, I hear you ask, is this a horror novel? The answer is an unqualified yes, from both an emotional and a political point of view. We’ll start with the feelings.
Of all my nightmares, the one that looms largest is being executed. The idea of knowing exactly how, when and where I was going to die, with no way out of it, terrifies me. So what could be scarier than prison, followed by a tumbril ride, culminating on the platform of Madame Guillotine, a simple device designed to take off your head as quickly and smoothly as possible? Perhaps the knowledge that your head might remain alive after it’s been severed, if only for a little while. “You’re dead, Monsieur. Go to sleep,” one of the executioners in Lee’s book says. Brr.
Politically, this novel is scary. The chaos, the blood, the friends turning on friends. The madness of a crowd. Living in the aftermath of January 6, 2021 is not helping, like the descriptions of people marching into Versailles and “soiling” it. Camille Desmoulins (the main character) writes a pamphlet about the Brissot faction, of which the narrator writes, “[The pamphlet’s] appeal to the human dilemma was fiendish. What has gone wrong? This. And none of it is your fault. Conversely, since someone is to blame, look over there” (321).
And let’s not forget that this was a revolution that murdered children, sometimes with cannon. “… young girls, children, babes suck in the very instant before the blast, on milk poisoned by their mothers’ fear… But the guillotine’s too slow for all these traitors, these traitor babies” (397). The terror of this passage is somewhat undercut by reminding me of a Kate Beaton strip on the same topic. She’s right; the horror of the Revolution does lend itself to comedy, horror and comedy being but two sides of the same feeling.
Long story short: if you put a guillotine in my Twitter timeline, suggesting (even in jest) that it’s an expedient solution to societal problems, I will block you. Grow up.
I enjoyed this novel. The horror aside, there is plenty of drama, and Lee’s lush, gorgeous prose. Publisher’s Weekly complains about the lack of character work. But as someone said at the last ReaderCon, no one reads Lee for the characters. Besides, the events and people are so operatic, even the driest history moves me. That said, I don’t see myself reading it again.
Tune in next time for Sung in Shadow!