Sunday, October 27, 2013

Book Review: Lycanthia

Book Review: 'Lycanthia' by Tanith Lee

3 / 5 Stars

‘Lycanthia, or The Children of Wolves’ (220 pp) is DAW Book No. 429, and was published in April, 1981. The cover artwork is by Paul Chadwick.

‘Lycanthia’ is in many ways a forerunner of the highly successful genre of ‘supernatural’ romances (e.g., 'Twilight'), a genre that really didn’t exist back in 1981.

The novel is set in France during the 1920s or 1930s. Its protagonist is Christian Dorse, a young man utterly absorbed with himself, and the tuberculosis that is slowly killing him. 

As the novel opens, Dorse has the good luck to inherit a chateau in the remote countryside. Bored with city life, and conscious of his dwindling years, Dorse travels to the chateau, and the opening chapters introduce the reader to the melancholy Winter countryside, the foreboding mansion, its eccentric servants, and the local village, with its ancient superstitions and strange customs.

At first content to play the cynical aesthete, stylishly prostrated by his illness, Dorse learns that the chateau has a history of disturbing behaviors by its former seigneurs. There are intimations of crimes and atrocities, acts that may have links to the presence of the large black dogs haunting the chateau and the surrounding forests. 

Dorse soon finds himself walking the narrow trails in the woods with a rifle in his hands, seeking what may be man-killing wolves.But what he actually finds is something more complex than a simple folktale of loups-garoux. For the village, the chateau, and the rumored werewolves all are part of an ancient and enduring tragedy, a tragedy that he may unwittingly revive…..

As was the case with most of Tanith Lee’s output in the 70s and 80s, ‘Lycanthia’ relies heavily on an ornate prose style. Readers should prepare for sentences chock full of metaphors and similes, and detailed exposition on the mental and spiritual turmoil of a ‘decadent’ character.

Lee clearly is making a conscious effort to imbue her novel with the same themes and attitudes of J. K. Huysmans’ 1884 symbolist classic A Rebours (‘Against Nature’). Christian Dorse is at heart a more modern version of Huysmans’ Jean Des Esseintes, seeking stimulation of his jaded, world-weary palate from the customs and practices of the primitive, but virile, landscape of rural France.

For these reasons, I suspect that ‘Lycanthia’ will not be embraced by readers of modern urban fantasies, where a clean, clear prose style, and recurring casts of characters, are the status quo.

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