Sung in Shadow is Tanith Lee’s novel-length alternate version of Romeo and Juliet from 1983. According to the back cover copy, it is “a brilliantly colorful novel of swordplay and intrigue, of spells and fiery emotions, in a world where the Devil himself would have the last word.” The story of Romulan and Iulet has all the trademarks of a Lee romantic fantasy and while I generally love those, this was not my favorite.
All the hallmarks of Lee are here, starting with the setting: an alternate history with twists and inversions. The story closely follows the plot of Romeo and Juliet, except when it doesn’t. The lovers meet for the first time in a brothel; Romulan speaks the line, “A rose who is called a rose. How could they call you by any other name?” not to Iulet, but to Rosalena. The killing of Mercurio is pinned on Romulan, and so on. The inversion extends to another favorite Lee motif, which is a fascination with the Devil as hero. She also plays with the imagery of Romulan and Iulet resembling each other physically, which inspires and reflects their spiritual connection.
Some of these changes were welcome surprises. I read the last half genuinely not knowing what was going to happen next. Considering that Romeo and Juliet is a story with which I have long run out of patience, I welcomed the suspense. But I have seen this sort of thing done by Lee elsewhere, most notably in The Flat Earth Series. That also has lovers who are spiritual twins, a heroic Satan, and alternate history (of the Advent of Christ, among other things). In that work, these motifs are better developed. Sung in Shadow sets them up, but the payoff doesn’t gel. The ending seemed arbitrary to me, even if she tried to set it up earlier.
There are other aspects of the novel that I could have done without. Lee is not the only fantasist of the period who brings us exotified non-white characters, who are seldom given any agency or any, well, character aside from being different. That element is mercifully brief in this book. The other thing that annoyed me was the descriptions of Cornelia, Iulet’s nurse and confidante. Cornelia is fat, and the writing never lets you forget it. In her trademark lush style, Lee describes her shape, her weight, the fact that her palanquin requires two extra men to carry it. It’s not funny, it’s not crucial to the plot or the character, and it just comes across as mean. She also indulges in the unfortunate “bury your gays” trope.
This book has some points to recommend it to fans of Tanith Lee. I didn’t hate it, but I don’t see myself rereading it in the future, and there are better books of hers out there.
Thank you for joining me for Tanuary 2022. Thanks once again to Daughter of the Night, the excellent online bibliography of Lee’s works from which I get my links. See you next year!