Tanith Lee just won a World Fantasy Lifetime Achievement Award, which is well-deserved. At her best, her prose and storytelling ability have an almost supernatural intensity. She has also been tremendously supportive of my own writing. As a congratulatory measure, I am reprinting some reviews of her fiction, in the hopes that more people will buy her work. This book is still in print!
Saint Fire by Tanith Lee
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Lee has begun another series of novels, linked together by the alternate city Venice, called Venus, arranged around the 4 elements essential to alchemy. Book 2 is set in medieval Ve Nera, popularly called Venus by its citizens. This ‘Venus’ is ruled by the Council of the Lamb, a group of priests who use terror and taxes to keep the citizens in line. The Duke of the city is only a figurehead. The Church traffics in brimstone and fire imagery, and hangs sinners in cages as examples. Like many dictatorships, some people are not so lucky to be made examples; they just disappear. Of course, not everyone agrees with these policies. Danielus is a high-ranking priest who despises the Council, both in tactics and theological interpretation. Only his rank, and control over the Belletae Christi (Soldiers of God) keep him safe. But he has to publicly support the Council, and clandestinely undermine their work. The Council’s latest endeavor is a trade war with the Moslem city of Jurneia, which they cloak ideologically as a Holy War against infidels. This war is ill-considered, due to lack of monetary funds and the greater military naval might of the Jurnieans. When in the city, tales of a strange girl who can turn her hair into fire, start to circulate, Danielus investigates and finds that it is true. He begins the process of grooming her to be a Joan of Arc emblem for the demoralized and terrified city.
While Lee does focus on the plight of the girl, whose name is Volpa (Italian for fox) and is transformed into the genderless Beatifica the Maiden, the story is really about Danielus and his radical (ecumenical) theology. The Maiden is a cipher for the people, existing in a aloof world of dreams and disappointing reality. Volpa is a simpleton, with a talent for elocution and mimicry, in addition to her fire-magic. Her magic seems to be inspired by the emotions of people around her, as if she is a magnifying glass for the human soul. Is she an angel, striking spiritual fire, or Danielus’ puppet? Is she being exploited? Lee doesn’t have easy answers for these questions, leaving it up to the reader to decide.
In addition to her trademark poetic, prose, Lee has valid political and philosophical subtexts. Venus is the goddess of sexual love. The Council of Lamb, like many fundamentalist Christian theologists, posit that sexual desire, outside of narrow confines, is essentially sinful. Lee turns that religious notion on its head, revealing the dangers and limitations of those beliefs. Saint Fire is a clever, original adaptation of the Joan of Arc story.
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