Review: The Birthgrave by Tanith Lee

Saturday, February 25, 2012
Author: Tanith Lee
Genre: fantasy, science fiction
Series: Birthgrave #1
Pages: 408 (mass market paperback)
Published: June 1975, republished 2012
Source: bought
Rating: 5/5

She woke from a sleep of countless years, reborn from the heart of a raging volcano. Her body was a masterpiece all men desired, her face a monstrosity that must go masked. Warrior, witch, goddess and slave, she was doomed to travel through a world of barbaric splendour, helped and betrayed by her lovers, searching for escape from the taint of her forgotten race, and the malice of the demon that haunted her.

Tanith Lee's The Birthgrave is one of the best pieces of feminist speculative fiction I have ever read.

The main character is a woman of the old race- humanlike creatures with apparent immortality and powers above and beyond that which we possess. She awakens in a volcano, and is told by the spirit in the fire that she is the last of her kind and will spread a curse of unhappiness across the land, unless she can unlock the secrets to the power and knowledge hidden within herself. Thus she leaves the mountain on a series of adventures, trying to discover the lost truthof her own past.

This book is about power: the power of belief, the power of the Other, and the power of womankind. As our main character, nameless, interacts with the world around her, she takes many roles: that of goddess, slave, warrior, healer. Lee does a fantastic job of painting more primitive human cultures, lost in their own beliefs and unwilling or unable to see the world around them for what it is because of their dogma and fear. Through these cultures drifts our heroine, a complex woman of quicksilver, trying to understand the legacy left her by her forebears.

The focus of her story for me is that while she has the physical and mental powers of her kind, the real victory comes from her strength of will. In a world dominated by men, she is both revered and feared, for while she hides what she can, the men around her- especially those with power- can sense that there is more to her than meets the eye. These men use her for their own gain. Some put her on a pedestal; others suppress her. But they are always watching her, because they know that her substance is something they cannot even begin to guess. In this, she represents the true inner strength of all womankind, forisn't the male of our species always trying to define and understand us? Our nameless heroine runs the gamut of all that men have done in
the effort to realize a definition for the power and beauty ofwomanhood.

But it's the eventual outcome of her quest that is truly refreshing and surprising- through it, she finally comes to understand that there is no need for an outward locus of self. All those confusions and mysteries are there inside her. She is not cursed, but blessed.

Highly recommended.

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