Eva Fairdeath, by Tanith Lee

Tanith Lee was a towering figure on the SF/F scene, and it’s pretty fair to say that we’re all the more impoverished for her loss. Her works were always thought-provoking and individual, always willing to challenge assumptions and social norms. These qualities are on full display in Eva Fairdeath.

Gothic western romantic post-apocayptic SF is a niche subgenre, to put it mildly, but that’s what Tanith Lee has created here. And she pulls off this remarkable mix rather well.

At the start of the book, the titular Eva is a seventeen year-old girl living in the well-named settlement of Foulmarsh. Foulmarsh is a poor, shoddy and dirty village that is by parts smothered and sustained by the marsh that it borders on. When I phrase it like that, you have what sounds like the set-up to a fantasy novel.

But you see, it’s not. As well as disease, poverty and social chaos, Foulmarsh also has plastic buckets, porcelain bathtubs and is close to what’s left of a derelict motorway.

You see, this isn’t a secondary world…

Nope, it’s what’s left of Southern England. In fact, by implication later on, Foulmarsh must be somewhere near what today is London.

Apparently, the last few decades have been a bit rough…

Eva’s world is a mess. It’s been polluted, bombed and climate-changed halfway into total ruin. The sky is yellow, the remaining trees are all dying and potable water is hard to come by. The weather is wildly unstable, to the point where there is no really defined seasonal cycle anymore and apparently hurricanes can now track north-east across the Atlantic. Basically, the final eco-catastrophe has been and gone, and the remaining people are living in Gaia’s rotting carcass. One of Eva’s family, the aptly-named Old Woman, is apparently 50 years old – this is regarded as an almost absurdly old age. Most people, apparently, don’t make it past 30.

The physical planet is a mess, and so is the society. Eva’s village is a seething heep of random bigotry, casual violence and generalised misery. Eva is quite matter-of-fact about this – after all, to some extent this is just what her world is, and it wouldn’t be particularly sensible to hope for anything different. She expects no more than just to be married off to some man, probably a mutant, and spend her remaining few years in normal generic Foulmarsh destitution.

Then something unexpected happens: a man comes to Foulmarsh, with murder in his mind.

One thing leads to another. Steel carries out his murder (the target being a traveling preacher who goes by the name of Jezubal). And for reasons she is entirely unable to articulate, Eva decides that the best course of action is to flee the town with Steel. Steel is not keen on this plan, but Eva isn’t taking no for an answer. And let’s face it, it’s not like staying in Foulmarsh was actually a better option, so why not?

Yes, Eva’s world is mad enough that running away from home with a known murderer actually makes sense.

What follows next is a madcap journey across the crazed Chernobylesque hellscape that south England has turned into. In the process the duo turns into a trio when they meet Sail, and they eventually make their way to Ship’s Bay. Underneath the incongruous light of the electric illuminations and in front of the hungry, polluted black mass that used to be the sea, the trio will have their final confrontation with the menacing Willowby … and what happens there will decide their fates, and that of their relationship.

What I Liked

This book is the opposite of Wyndham’s cozy catastrophes, where protagonists with distinctly middle-class sentiments actually manage rather well. (Obligatory disclaimer: I’m a fan of a lot of Wyndham’s work, so this isn’t a rant about him, just an observation.) There’s nothing cozy about Eva’s world. But, there are twisted echoes of the previous society. People cling to insipid fragments of moral comfort, rather resembling of the shallow/hypocritical attitudes toward faith and morality often displayed by so-called ‘spiritual’ people. Bizarrely, consumerism is alive and well – in Jallow’s town, he’s gone to some effort to recreate a demented variant of the old capitalist lifestyle. In Ship’s Bay, Kingsley has reimposed a warped version of the old social class system.

The nature of the apocalypse is left largely offstage. There are some faint suggestions that some sort of war was involved at one point. However it isn’t clear if the war was a cause of the apocalypse, or rather a consequence of Gaia’s ongoing decline. Also, the main factor seems to have been toxic pollution – people are dimly aware of this in the setting, and there is a sort of half-recognition of their own culpability in the world’s death, but the details have been lost to time. We don’t even know how long it’s been since the fall of the old world. It’s certainly been decades, and possibly centuries. I liked the sense of unresolved mystery that hangs over all of this.

Technology in Eva’s world isn’t extinct, but is certainly unusual. Electricity is encountered twice in the book, once at Jallow’s town (which has a generator) and later on at Ship’s Bay (whose generator is apparently used just to run some seaside fairy lights, a record player and a sliding door). There’s also one journey on a train, which Eva finds to be both a liberating and nearly-overwhelming experience. There are, however, no computers to be seen anywhere.

The people in Eva’s world have all been marked by their experiences. By our standards, everyone is at least a bit unhinged. Some of them are extremely unhinged, and surface appearances are no guide. (Steel turns out to be much less sane than he initially appears; despite living by theft and being a serial womaniser, Sail is arguably the most balanced out of the three.)

Also, there is no problem at all with gay or bi invisibility here, although the details would be rather spoilerific.

What Could Be Problematic

Hahahaha – oh my. Where to start?

It’s worth keeping in mind that this is a book about a brutal, broken world. (The world itself is arguably a fourth main character here.) That’s going to leave a mark on the people in it, and it has left a mark. Of course, plenty of the people are quite good at adding extra little bits of nasty all by themselves. Plenty of nasty things happen, probably too many to be worth listing. Be aware that if you read this one, things break and people die. Quite regularly.

The dynamics of Eva’s relationships with Sail and Steel are tinged with the same madness that infects the world around them. Eva lurches from concerned to crazed and back again with the same demented frequency that the weather outside changes. While the balance changes within the relationship, the same feeling of faint ill health hangs over all of it. Is this love, or is it obsession? Is there even a difference in this context?

(But then, this is a novel about a world gone mad. Perhaps survival here demands some madness too? After all, for all of their manifest dysfunction, the characters do manage to survive, so who are we to judge?)

Lastly, the general feel of the book is pretty bleak. While the ending isn’t hopeless, it isn’t clear how much of a future the trio have. There seems to be an implication that the world is still getting worse (the tainted water supply at Foulmarsh, the purported worsening of the weather and the obviously-dead state of the sea when they finally reach it). Is the world going to finally die entirely, some years beyond the last page of the book? We don’t know, but the omens are ominous.

Summary

Read this book if you want something different from cozy catastrophes. Read this book if you like a bit of eco-gothic horror mixed in with your SFF, and if you have a soft spot for tales of mysterious revenge.

However, if existential bleakness, regular violence and romances-touched-with-madness don’t work for you, then this book may not either.

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