The Birthgrave, by Tanith Lee
The Birthgrave is a challenging work; if it were published today, it would definitely be considered dark fantasy. However, it is also thought-provoking and poses some hard-to-answer questions about the topics of collective guilt and innocence – just how responsible are we for the sins of those who are like us?
For its time of publication, in the mid ’70s, it was also rather subversive. You see, at its heart, The Birthgrave is a journey of self-discovery, and it has the singular conceit that a woman’s experience is valid and worth considering. Even in today’s SFF, that can be regrettably-rare.
For purposes of trigger warnings, etc., I’m filing this review under “choose not to warn”. Frankly, given the state of the world of The Birthgrave, TWs are probably redundant. I’m also going to change the usual review structure and have a singular “commentary” section, as the “liked/problematic” contrast doesn’t really work in this context. Be aware that the needle will be over on the “problematic” side of the dial a lot during this review.
So, without further digression, here’s the review…
I keep coming back to one pithy line whenever I try to summarise this book: “Imagine if The Prince of Nothing had been written by a woman.”
At the start of the book, our protagonist – let’s call her the Lady for now – wakes up alone and without her memories, somewhere deep below the earth. She finds herself within a volcanic catacomb, surrounded by rock, full of the smell of sulphur and with ominous rumblings coming from below. Frightened, she tries to find her way out of the maze.
Before she can escape, she is accosted by the demon Karrakaz. Karrakaz informs her that she is the last survivor of an evil, monstrous race, and that she is wholly deserving of death. Karrakaz says it spared her once before, when her race was destroyed by its own corruption, as she had been but a child and the corruption was not yet absolute within her. However, Karrakaz does not believe that she should now venture forth beyond the mountain that has been her tomb. It tells her that should she do so, death and madness will follow in her wake, and “there will be no happiness”.
The Lady chooses to live, and escapes from Karrakaz. She stumbles out into a land where she is immediately regarded as a goddess returned. It emerges that her tomb is in fact a dormant volcano, and said volcano shortly erupts. Karrakaz’s promise is apparently coming true – death and madness do indeed follow her.
But the Lady is not the only agency in the world. There are others who would seek her power for themselves, and their motives are far from pure. As well as surviving their machinations, she slowly comes to learn who (and what) she is.
The squick is probably as good a place to start as any, and there’s plenty of it. So, here’s some squickiness for you…
The Birthgrave pulls no punches. Karrakaz’s assessment of the character of the Lost culture is entirely accurate; they were awful people. (But then, Karrakaz would know, wouldn’t it?) The Lost serve, I think, as a cautionary tale for the possession of too much power. They could have used their quasi-magical Powers to make a utopia and indeed, for themselves, they did. For those people on their world without Power, however, they were despotic murderers, depraved rapists and slavers. In 40K terms, they’re a sort of warped mix of the worst aspects of both Slaaneshi cultists and the Dark Eldar – yes, that’s right, they’re arguably worse than both of those put together.
(There is one horrifying scene early in the book that leaves you in no doubt about what exactly the Lost got off on. It’s … grim. This scene starts to make you wonder if Karrakaz’s hostility to the Lady may in fact be reasonable. If this is what all her relatives were like, what if she starts recapitulating their monstrous behaviour?)
Frankly, the Lost were well-named. In addition, their world-view had more than a whiff or two of real-world racism to it – the ordinary humans of their world were explicitly referred to as “the lesser race”, there only to be used and disposed of whenever a Lost one’s whims demanded.
Over the course of the novel, we discover that the Lost were wiped out at some time in the past by a plague. Said plague combined high infectiousness with maximal lethality, and which also seems to have specifically-targeted them and them only. Ordinary humans were apparently entirely-immune. Interestingly, it’s also strongly-implied to have been an STD – and of course the Losts’ debauchery being what it was, they were entirely unwilling to stem their appetites once the disease broke out amongst their population.
In a real sense, their own corruption did indeed destroy them.
Also, note how bioweapon-like the above disease sounds. There does seem to be an implication that its development may not have been entirely natural – it is a plot-point that the Lady’s world is a planet in the way we understand the term, and also that said planet is sometimes visited by outsiders. Whilst the implication isn’t spelt out in the book, there does seem to be a suggestion that the plague may have been the work of someone else.
One awkward aspect of the book was its internal chronology. The earlier sections, with the journey toward the city of Ankurun, tell us that it’s been centuries since the fall of the Lost. However, later on we’re told that the Lady is in her early 20s. It’s hard to reconcile these two things.
Another aspect of the book is the messed-up nature of the societies present in it. They all have a warped, unpleasant aspect to them. Ankurum’s sporting events have a creepy, debauched tone to them, with their emphasis on vulnerability, pain, nakedness and audience titillation. And then we have the cities of the South, which are basically just horrible, even by the standards of this world. But then, you realise something – the social structures present have been inherited pretty much wholesale from the Lost. And of course the Lost would have crafted a horror-story world, to better enjoy their, uh, pleasures. So, whilst the societies are fucked up in the extreme, they’re fucked up in a way that makes a certain sort of sense.
(Also, the time of the Lost dominion is implied to have been even worse for normal humans. Yeah, think about that. Also, it’s likely that the Lost consciously and deliberately organised their domains like this, because they would have got off on the idea of creating suffering. Such charming people.)
So, I’ve covered (some of) the squick. What else do we have?
Well, the Lady’s character-arc is interesting. This really is a journey of self-discovery. As the book moves on, she grows and changes. And interestingly, by the end of it, she manages to reach a much better place than she started. Her recognition of the killing of traders as a “crime” is, I think, frankly epochal – it shows a level of self-awareness and a sense of actual compassion far beyond anything any other Lost shows at any point in the book. The book also ends with her regaining her memories and coming to fully-understand both her own history and her place in the world. And there are a few interesting surprises.
While details of precisely how and why are incredibly spoilerific, what’s going on in this book is not what you think it is. This is very definitely not a fantasy novel, despite the fantasy-style furniture.
There’s also another bit near the end that really caught my notice. When the Lady is talking to the ship’s Captain, she confesses her regret over the traders’ deaths. The Captain could very easily have delivered a telling-off at that stage – and of course, in ’70s fiction, there would be nothing odd about an Uppity Woman getting put straight by a Male Authority Figure.
That doesn’t happen here.
Instead, the Captain is actually broadly supportive, saying instead that she shouldn’t judge herself, as we’re all really bad at it. Instead, the suggestion is that she’d be better taking the experience, learning what she can from it, and moving on.
Also, the book rejects brutality as a valid strategy. The Lost were brutal, and look where that got them. Generally, the more ends-justify-the-means the Lady’s actions are, the less effective they are. She only really starts to get anywhere later in the book, when she begins to properly-value the people around her.
Also, the book rejects the claim that a woman’s only purpose is producing children. Whilst the Lady does get pregnant at one point, the child is just a burden. The Lady’s decision to give the baby up was very probably the right one. (In addition, she gives the child up to another couple who have lost their child to stillbirth, so this act was significant within the Lady’s character development. Whilst not wholly-selfless, nonetheless there was some real generosity in said action.)
The general tone of the book is introspective and slow-moving, Even the action sequences have a ponderous quality to them. Attention is paid to the emotional state of the main character, and she considers the meanings of the things that happen around her. For ’70s SFF, this was a pretty radical notion (people have reactions to things? Who knew?!).
If you have a low tolerance for squick, then yes, this will be a difficult book. However, if journeys of personal discovery interest you, and if you’re interested in the idea of people facing their inner demons, then this book may hold some interest.