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Best fantasy trilogy youíve (probably) never read? Try this one
Tuesday, 12 June 2007 18:31

The fantasy trilogy has become ubiquitous long past the point of stereotype. Ever since ìThe Lord of the Rings,î readers of the genre have been besieged by trilogies. Maybe itís the simple beginning-middle-end structure it offers. Maybe itís the ability to more easily break down epic stories.

David Forbes


Most of these are not very good, being Tolkien rip-offs. Plucky robbits will have to deliver the one gauntlet to Mt. Gloom to thwart the plans of the Dark Lord Gauron or some such.

However, there is one trilogy that is an absolute masterpiece, written in the mid-1970s by someone who has since become an acknowledged master (or mistress, more properly) of the art: Tanith Lee. Despite this and despite the high quality of the work, itís not been reprinted much since.

I am speaking of the Birthgrave Trilogy, consisting of 1975ís ìThe Birthgraveî and its sequels ìVazkor, Son of Vazkorî and ìThe Quest for the White Witch,î both from 1978. They could not be more different from Tolkien. Personally, as much of a classic as his work is, I actually like them better.

All are currently out of print, but can easily be had for under a dollar each from any number of bookshops or online.

ìThe Birthgraveî begins with a compelling scenario: A woman wakes up under a volcano, which is now erupting. She comes into her strange world a refugee and an outcast. Her skin is alabaster white. She does not age, she heals quickly. She can heal others (or harm them) by means no one else can understand. People think sheís a goddess, others want to use her for their own ends. Oh yeah, she might also be insane.

ìThe Birthgraveî follows her quest for the truth of her past, told from her point of view. ìVazkorî picks up with the story of her son, abandoned with a tribe of raiders. Like his mother, he finds himself on a quest for his real identity, but his dilemmas are created in part by her. The quest concludes (and mother and son finally meet) in the final book.

Tanith Lee, the author of the Birthgrave Trilogy


Through the whole trilogy, Lee draws on the old pulp sword-and-sorcery tales ó with their lavish barbarisms, brutal fights and dread magic ó more so than the epics which Tolkien (and hence much of modern fantasy) spring from.

If ìsword and sorceryî brings to mind muscle-bound dumb Conan types smashing things, forget it. Actually, go read Robert Howardís original Conan stories. Pulp they might be, but theyíre great tales, and the original Conan was anything but stupid. But Lee takes the tropes of a familiar genre to high art. The narrator of the Birthgrave (given several names throughout her trek), as an ethereal and immortal witch-queen, is more commonly a villain type in the genre, but not here. Sheís a powerfully realized character and a potent hero.

Vazkor would seem to be more of the standard sword-swinging type, but heís inherited some of his motherís powers (and personality traits). This leaves him a strange hybrid, equal parts sword and sorcery.

In writing, Lee takes from the best of the old tales in her action and the nature of the world her characters find themselves in. She scraps the conventional flat characterization and brings a deeper understanding of motive and theme that is sorely needed.

The result is pure magic. Lee would later, in works such as ìThe Books of Paradys,î show that her talents were no fluke. She proceeded to show that again and again, of course, winning a slew of well-deserved awards along the way.

But still the Birthgrave Trilogy stands as something wonderfully unique in the history of fantasy. I would gladly see a hundred generic epics go the way of the dodo to have it back in print. In the meantime, hunt these three old paperbacks down and read something of genius.
David Forbes, who writes book reviews for the Daily Planet, may be reached at Suggestions and comments are always welcome.


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