Tanuary: Night’s Master

It’s that time of year again: Tanuary, when I devote myself to reading (and re-reading) the work of my favorite author, Tanith Lee. This year, I was inspired to re-visit her 1979 World Fantasy Award-nominated novel, Night’s Master, by the debut of Netflix’s series The Sandman, based on the comic book by Neil Gaiman and various artists. Night’s Master is the first volume of Lee’s Tales from the Flat Earth series, which takes place in a secondary world of myth and magic.

Image: The cover of Night’s Master, by Tanith Lee, which has a drawing of a woman greeting a snake, which is wrapped around a tree.

When I first read Night’s Master, I was in college. My boyfriend at the time (now my husband) had already gotten me into The Sandman. I devoured the series and adored the main character: Morpheus, Lord of Dreams. So when I discovered the Flat Earth series (out of order, by way of the Pequot Library annual book sale), it didn’t take much to see echoes of Morpheus in Azhrarn, the Prince of Demons. They have much in common.

(Nota bene: spoilers follow for both series. If you have not read or watched, be warned!)

Morpheus and Azhrarn could be brothers with their pale skin, black hair, and ethereal beauty. Within their worlds they are lords of realms of human imagination: dreams for one, the demon world of Underearth for the other. Both have, if we use the term loosely, siblings who share similar responsibilities. Dream has Destiny, Death, Delirium, Desire and Despair. Azhrarn’s fellow Lords of Darkness are Death (Uhlume), Madness (Chuz), and Fate (Kheshmet). Finally, the two characters share a propensity for collecting titles and epithets. Morpheus is the Lord of Dreams, Prince of Stories, and Ruler of the Nightmare Realm. Azhrarn the Beautiful is also Prince of Demons, Master of the Vazdru, the Eshva, and the Drin, The Black Cat of Druhim Vanashta, and Lord Wickedness. It is in this last title that we see some difference between the two.

Azhrarn likes nothing more than to create mischief in the human world. He seduces people of any gender. He causes the milk to curdle and spoil. He once turned a man into a chimeric monster, because the man’s fiancée would not accept Azhrarn’s favors. The soul of the couple’s child Azhrarn severed and placed into two separate bodies. While Underearth, like The Dreaming, hosts the souls of sleeping humans, Azhrarn and his Vazdru princes like to hunt them on horseback. Those they catch, go mad. The Prince of Demons is gloriously handsome, but he’s not nice.

But then again, is Morpheus? Azhrarn drowned his lover Sivesh for leaving him, but Morpheus condemned the object of his affection, Nada, to millennia in Hell. Morpheus enjoys elaborate, terrible revenge on people who wrong him or his realm. Both princes have children whom they neglect, with disastrous consequences.

This brings me to the final commonality: each makes choices and take actions that lead him to a spectacular death. The chimera I spoke of earlier becomes a disembodied force of pure hate that threatens to destroy the only thing Azhrarn needs in his life, the only thing, it turns out, that he loves: humanity. The Lord of Wickedness offers himself to the abhorrent sunrise, banishing Hate and immolating himself. Morpheus eventually grants death to his immortal son Orpheus, but this brings the Furies down on his head, and eventually he dies. Of the two, only Azhrarn returns from death, but he is changed.

I guess this is all a roundabout way to say that if you like The Sandman, or if you just like fairy tales and mythology and lush language, you should read this book. It has its problematic aspects. Tanith Lee was not perfect, and some things have not aged well. Too many good characters are described in beautiful shades of white and gold while less attractive characters are black or brown or ugly. If that sort of thing is a turn-off, proceed carefully. Some of her other works are far worse in this regard, but you know you best.

For all its flaws, I still adore this book. I’ve heard that no one reads Tanith Lee for the characters, but this has got to be an exception. Azhrarn might have been written for me, with his pale goth beauty and delicious sarcasm. I’m pretty sure he’s a baritone. Aside from him, my favorite in this book is poor abused Zorayas, the displaced queen who regains her kingdom though sorcery and military power, and her beauty by tricking Azhrarn. It doesn’t end well, but what congress with The Prince of Demons could? The writing is gorgeous, and nobody, but nobody, writes magical sex scenes like Tanith Lee.

These books are back in print after too long away, and you can find the whole series here. Though Death’s Master gets a lot of the accolades, if you’re a pure Azhrarn fan you can skip it and go to Delusion’s Master, which is his tragic love story. This was the first novel I read of the series, the one that got me hooked.

Tanuary is not over yet. I think I’ll try something new next, some short fiction: Ghosteria, Volume 1. I’ll let you know how it turns out.

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