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The Birthgrave is Tanith Lee's first published novel -- the first book of a trilogy of stunning imagination -- and remains one of her most memorable best. This fine edition includes a new introduction by the author.
A mysterious woman awakens in the heart of a dormant volcano and comes forth into a brutal ancient world transformed by genocidal pestilence, war, fierce beauty, and cultural devastation. She has no memory of herself, and she could be anyone -- mortal woman, demoness lover, last living heir to a long-gone race, or a goddess of destruction. Compelled by the terrifying Karrakaz to search for the mysterious Jade that is the answer to her secret self, she embarks on a journey of timeless wonder.
Come within this realm of brilliant cruel beauty and seductive immortal ruins, of savage war and grand conquest, of falling stars and silver gods, of longing and desire.
Rediscover the exotic wonder of The Birthgrave Trilogy.
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Tanith Lee is a legend in science fiction and fantasy. She wrote more than 50 novels and almost 300 short stories, and is the winner of multiple World Fantasy Awards, a British Fantasy Society Derleth Award, and a World Fantasy Lifetime Achievement Award.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
DAW TRADEMARK REGISTERED U.S. PAT. AND TM. OFF. AND FOREIGN COUNTRIES—MARCA REGISTRADA HECHO EN U.S.A.
Don Wollhem wrote to tell me he had just bought a long novel by an unknown Englishwoman whose only previous books had been written for children. He asked me to read it and, if I felt it was something I could honestly praise, to write an introduction.
It arrived on a morning full of annoyances. I was still recuperating after a slipped disk, so that I walked with a sort of careful crouch and winced when I hefted the thick manuscript. Still, I’d promised Wollheim and he is my own publisher, so I surveyed the fat mass of copy paper without enthusiasm, cautiously lowered my aching back into a kitchen chair, and spread out the manuscript on the table.
So I turned the first page and found myself in the heart of an extinct volcano, in darkness, with a woman who did not know who she was, or where she was, or why. . . .
And before long I forgot that I was reading this out of duty, or a promise to an editor, or anything else. I even forgot the kitchen chair and the bad back, although after a couple of hours (sleepwalking, still reading with the manuscript box under my arm, unable to set it aside even to hunt a really comfortable place) I did shift myself from kitchen table to living-room sofa. I had forgotten everything except the nameless woman and her mysterious quest.
I am a remarkably fast reader, but it was almost five hours later when I turned over the last page, read THE END, and surfaced with a start and a shudder. Wow, I thought. Oh, wow!
All I thought about the task of writing an introduction was that I’d have a chance to share with the other readers something of how I felt about this terrific new discovery.
It’s a strange and rather disturbing book. It’s filled with adventure and beauty, rich alien names, half-sketched barbarian societies, ruined cities, decadence and wonder. A nameless woman, knowing only that she is under a curse, comes out of the heart of an extinct volcano. Everything is strange to her. Is she healer-woman, witch, goddess, as the various peoples call her? Can she choose to be courtesan, warrior, queen? She goes from tribe to tribe, city to city, with the curse of her past following her wherever she goes. She can suffer pain—but she is deathless, except by her own will; she is drawn endlessly by the quest for her identity, her forgotten name, the mysterious Jade which—she believes—holds the key to her soul; and everywhere she is pursued by the image of the Knife of Easy Dying, which alone can kill her.
Comparisons are odious, yet as I read this I thought most often of the “Dying Earth” stories of Jack Vance, under whose spell I had fallen as a girl. THE BIRTHGRAVE has something of the same color and wonder; something, too, of the strange undertone of doom and sadness.
And there was something else.
Most women in science fiction write from a man’s viewpoint. In most human societies, adventures have been structured for men. Women who wish to write of adventure have had to accept, willy-nilly, this limitation. There seems an unspoken assumption in science fiction that science fiction is usually read by men, or, if it is read by women, it is read by those women who are bored with feminine concerns and wish to escape into the world of fantasy where they can change their internal viewpoint and gender and share the adventurous world of men. Maybe this was true at one time. The women’s liberationists would say that we women writers, too, had been brainwashed into accepting this pervasive social trend.
By and large, most of us have accepted the unspoken dictum that this is a man’s world, and if we wish to compete in it, we shall do so as men. All of us, and I include myself, have written mostly of men’s doings and concerns, and all too often from a man’s point of view.
So maybe this is the book we’ve all been waiting for.
Here is a woman writer whose protagonist is a woman—yet from the very first she takes her destiny in her own hands, neither slave nor chattel. Her adventures are her own. She is not dragged into them by the men in her life, nor served up to the victor as a sexual reward after the battle. For the first time since C. L. Moore’s warrior-woman, Jirel of Joiry, we see the woman-adventurer in her own right.
But this book is not an enormous allegory of women’s liberation, nor an elaborate piece of special pleading. It’s just a big delightful feast of excitement and adventure.
It’s a long book. You get involved, learn to know the people, get fully submerged in the colorful and fascinating world Tanith Lee presents. And I predict that when you, at last, satisfied but regretful, turn over the last page, you too will wish there were more.
As I found out when I read it through under what must be called acid-test conditions, it’s what Don Wollheim calls “a good read.” But it’s more than that. It has something to say to every reader, man or woman, about the eternal questions of existence and identity. And, although as I said before, it is not a piece of propaganda from women’s liberation, it may say more for all of us, women and men too, than the whole humorless crowd of Steinems, de Beauvoirs, Friedans, and all their weighty tomes.
Now get on with it. I won’t keep you any longer from the excitement of sharing with me this rich new discovery—THE BIRTHGRAVE by Tanith Lee.
This novel was written by me around the age of 22. I read it aloud to my mother, a great listener, as I went. Later she typed the manuscript—the only human being able to read my “writing-a-story” handwriting. Then or now.
But when we sent it to publishers, nobody was interested. Many didn’t even reply.
It didn’t stop me writing (evidently), but it stopped me hoping.
However . . .
* * *
The arrival for the idea of The Birthgrave was quite strange. The image of the ice-white being, trapped in the red-hot volcano. The dreams I had—as later told in the book—waking and not knowing what I was, let alone who. The dreams of flying—feeling the wing-tendons waking up in the muscles of my back—
But the other extraordinary thing which occurred is not mystical. It is a curious and perfect coincidence I’ve always treasured.
* * *
Earlier, I’d spent a year at art college. This really got me back on the rails as a person, and developed my drawing skills, such as they are.
Then the year ended. So I took various jobs: waitressing, shop work, etc.
One evening, I was meeting a friend from the college. We were meant to coincide about 5:30, and it was late April or May. As I stood waiting at the bus stop for her bus to arrive, the sky undid itself and about ten tons of snow descended. (Hey, it’s England!)
Asking a harried bus inspector, I was told my friend would, probably, arrive, but would be an hour to an hour and a half late.
By then I was up to my ankles (I don’t lie) in freezing snow.
I hauled myself out and staggered into W. H. Smith, the large, warm bookstore that lay just back from the bus stop.
The thing with Smith’s was they had an excellent fantasy/SF section then. And an especially good selection of those smart, unique volumes produced by DAW Books of America. (I still love those early yellow covers, each one with its single bright “window.”)
I was so often finding a fascinating read among them. Warmed up, and grabbing a novel for the check-out, I felt better. When the world doesn’t work, one of the best places to go is a book. Read it. Write it.
And this was the moment, and not remotely mystical, but—
No, I didn’t hear voices, but it was as if something said to me: “This company doesn’t do what anyone else does. Why don’t you . . . try approaching them?”
And I thought: Don’t be daft. Nobody wants my stuff. And look who DAW publishes—Marion Zimmer Bradley! Famous writers.
“Oh, go on,” said my silly, wise back-brain. “You admire them. Trust them.”
So I bought my book and met my friend. A few days later I tried the Approach to DAW. Expecting the normal rebuff.
To my amazement, I got a very nice reply. Sounds interesting, was the gist. Let’s see a synopsis and some text.
Luckily, since I seldom know how a story of mine is going to end till it’s got there, I’d written The Birthgrave, and so could do a direct synopsis from the established plot.
Again, quite speedily, I had a reply: “Send all.” I couldn’t believe it. Then believed it. Sent all, and subsequently the two other novels I’d written, The Storm Lord and Don’t Bite the Sun.
DAW took everything.
And from the outer dark beyond the hearth-fire I was liberated into the joy and light of a career as what I truly was, doing the only thing I could do well, and loved to do. A writer.
Donald Wollheim saved me—and I don’t exaggerate—from wasting everything I had and was. He gave me what I was, fully, and let me run with the torch.
I’m still running with it.
My everlasting thanks to him and to his daughter, my friend Elizabeth (Betsy) Wollheim, goes beyond words.
And for a writer to find they have no words—oh joy!
Part I: Under the Volcano
TO WAKE, AND not to know where, or who you are, not even to know what you are—whether a thing with legs and arms, or a beast, or a brain in the hull of a great fish—that is a strange awakening. But after a while, uncurling in the darkness, I began to discover myself, and I was a woman.
All around was blackness and no-sound. With my hands I felt old crusts of rock. There was an ancient bitter smell without a name pressing into my nostrils. I crawled out of the recess I had been lying in, and found a sort of passage where I could stand upright. Oddly, I did not wonder if I was blind. It was cold and airless as I felt a way along the passage. My foot struck hard on an obstruction. I kneeled and felt it carefully. A step, followed by other steps, hewn out roughly from the inner rock, and not much trodden. I could remember abruptly other staircases, made of smooth veined white stuff, slippery almost as glass, deeply indented at their center from countless feet passing up and down.
I went cautiously up the steps, feeling always with my hands. I did not think to count them, but there were many, at least a hundred. And then a flat space without steps. Foolishly I had quickened my pace, thankful to be on level ground, but I was punished. Suddenly there was no more stone in front, only an unsensable void. I swayed like a dancer on the brink of the invisible drop, then flung backward and saved myself. A skitter of stones fell down into the blackness. I heard them falling for a long time, bouncing often against the walls.
I was terrified now. How could I go on without seeing? The next mistake might be fatal, and already, without even knowing who I was, I knew my life was important to me. I sensed, too, something fighting against me in the dark, a malignant, one-sided battle, and I feared it and was angry.
On hands and knees I went forward very slowly, away to the left of the drop. After a moment, my outstretched hand clawed at emptiness. I turned back, going to the right. A few seconds, and the third corner of the abyss was sucking at my grasp.
I was filled with fury. I screamed out a curse in the dark, and the sound echoed and echoed until I thought the rock would split in pieces.
Where now? Perhaps there was nowhere. I lay on the ledge and wept, and then curled again, like an animal or a fetus, and slept. That was the end of my first awakening.
* * *
The second time was better. The original sleep had been no normal sleeping; this was, and I woke with a different awareness of things.
I reasoned in the dark that if the staircase ended in nothing, then I would have to go back down the stairs to the passage, and retrace my steps until I found some other way. It occurred to me then, for the first time, that I was seeking the surface, with an instinctive knowledge of being underground.
Crawling back across the platform to the stairs, my hands and then my knees encountered a square dip in the rock. I searched it and discovered a seam. This must be a door. Even while I was trying to find some way to open it, it slipped suddenly inward. I found myself, still in absolute blackness, hanging over another unguessable void, my scrabbling fingertips clutching at one smooth edge of the door. There was no hope. My fingers lost their grip and I fell. I thought that was the end of it, but the drop was not very far. I hit the stone floor, and rolled, loose-limbed enough that I did myself no harm.
I turned around slowly, and now, unmistakably, there was the merest glimmer of light, far off, at the end of what seemed another long passageway. Drawn by that light, I set off quickly, almost running.
Now I could see the dim outline of the rock sides, and the little veins of glitter in them. The passage wound and wound, and the glow deepened and bloodied. Then abruptly I had turned a corner and threw up my hands to shield my eyes.
The light was as blinding as the darkness, but soon I could rub away the tears and look around me.
I was in a vast cavern, lit only at its center where a great, rough-hewn bowl, at least six feet in diameter, poured out a ceaseless storm of red and golden flame. Beyond the fire a flight of steps ran up to a narrow door high in the wall. Otherwise the cavern seemed featureless and empty.
Somehow the narrow door was important to me, and I knew I must reach it.
I started out across the floor, suddenly aware of how the cavern, stretching up endlessly into darkness, dwarfed me like an ant. I passed the flame-bowl, had my foot on the first stair. There was a groaning thunder behind me. I swung around and looked in astonishment. Countless little fires had cracked open the cavern floor, and were blazing there. At the next step, fresh flames burst through. Not stopping to see any more, I ran to the top of the stairs, as if speed could outwit the mechanism below. With my hand on the narrow door, I glanced back. The floor where I had walked was now a sea of savage gold, and the scarlet smoke clouded up and turned to purple in the high roof. I pushed the door and ran through when it opened, thrusting it shut behind me.
The room was full of light, though it seemed to have no source. In front of me was a long hanging curtain, and when I pulled it aside, a stone altar and another stone bowl, where something stirred and brooded at my presence. I could not see this thing, only sense it, and when it spoke, I did not hear the words except with the ears inside my head.
“And so you could not sleep forever. I knew that you must wake one day, for all the sleep I gave you. Wake, and come to me. Even the abyss could not take you, as I hoped. Well, then. I will tell you things. I am Karrakaz, the Soulless One, who sprang from the evil of y...
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Book Description DAW, 1975. Condition: New. book. Seller Inventory # M0886771277