Saturday, April 30, 2011

The Secret Books of Venus

The Series: The Secret Books of Venus
Titles: Faces Under Water
Saint Fire
A Bed of Earth
Venus Preserved
Author: Tanith Lee
Themes: love, loyalty, apocalypse, murder, revenge, feuds, family, music, wealth, religion
Rating: ***1/2

Faces Under Water Plot (***): In this new series, Tanith Lee weaves intricate plots around the elements of water, fire, earth, and air. the first in this new series, Faces Under Water immerses readers in the timeless beauty of Venice and the secret terror that lies beneath.

In the hedonistic atmosphere of an eighteenth-century Venice Carnival, gaiety turns deadly when Furian Furiano happens upon a mask of Apollo floating in the murky waters of the canals. The mask hides a sinister art, and Furian finds himself trapped in a bizarre tangle of love, obsession, and evil, stumbling upon a macabre society of murderers. The beautiful but elusive Eurydiche holds the key to theses murders and leads him further into a labyrinth of black magic and ancient alchemy. For all readers who fell in love with Lee's Paradys series and for all those enchanted and terrified by the fantastical, Faces Under Water will be sure to thrill.

Saint Fire Plot (***): Starting with the premise of four novels based on the phases of alchemy and the four elements, Tanith Lee has created an evocative alternate Italy in her new series, The Secret Books of Venus. The first volume, Faces Under Water, was set against a backdrop drenched with atmosphere and water in a parallel Venice.

In Saint Fire, the gripping second volume in the series, Volpa is a strangely beautiful servant girl who glows with an inhuman inner fire. When her master, an abusive woodseller, is mysteriously incinerated, Volpa begins to discover her power of fire. Her gift is noticed by the church leaders, who see her as a mighty weapon in their holy wars. Not sure if her powers are heavenly or demonic, the priests are nonetheless determined to have Volpa on their side. This gripping fantasy of a mysteriously gifted Joan of Arc figure is stunning from beginning to end.

A Bed of Earth Plot(****):
A Bed of Earth is a haunting journey to a parallel version of sixteenth-century Venice, where a fierce territorial rivalry between two noble families unearths a supernatural force from beneath the placid surface of the canals and rotting understructure of the city.

The struggle between the two families for space on the Isle of the Dead, the overcrowded burial ground for generations of Venetian nobility, culminates in the abduction and horrific murder of a fourteen-year-old-girl. As the years pass on, parties complicit in her fate begin to suffer the consequences in a series of shocking deaths that could emanate from none other than a supernatural force. A humble apprentice gravedigger is left to sort out the mysteries and subdue the ancient terror that threatens to destroy the entire republic.

Venus Preserved Plot(**):
The thrilling conclusion to Tanith Lee's compelling Secret Books of Venus quartet, Venus Preserved is set centuries into the future in the undersea city of Venus, the site of a macabre experiment to bring two lost souls back to life. Salvaged from beneath the sea and rebuilt under a dome, Venus itself has been resurrected with a vast network of advanced computers that regulate weather, noise, and the most previous undersea commodity of all-air.

When the experiment goes awry, claiming several lives, the questions abound: was it merely an accident? Computer failure? Or has an airborne virus been unleashed? Or is there an even more sinister danger afoot, a force from beyond that threatens the survival of Venus itself? To answer these questions, a traveler from the surface is forced to confront mysteries in his own past and to reveal the connection that ties him to the unavenged spirits wreaking havoc n the doomed city.

My Thoughts (on the whole series): What I had enjoyed so much about Lee's Paradys series was it's rather epic and self-referencing nature. It was essential a collection of short stories that took an alternative Paris from pre-modern to futuristic vignettes. Poets or liars or cheats or heroes from earlier stories would be seen again in stories later in the same tome, or later in the series, as a street name, a legend, a small reference. But each book, or short story collection, was easily read on its own. Each could be read out of order. The Secret Books of Venus are still self-referencing and each tome is independent and so can be read out of order or even individually. But I was rather let down by the fact that they were actual novels, not more collections of short stories, because I felt I didn't get a wide enough swath of Venetian history and life as I did for Paradys. Because really, each of these "Secret" series are stories of the city-not of whichever protagonist is currently on the page. Paradys was a mosaic, Venus is more of a linear narrative.

Of course Lee's writing is lush, vivid, raw, and beautiful. Her references to an alternative Christianity both beautify the ecstasy of belief and ritual, while emphasizing the fallibility of mankind (i.e. religion as institution). I found that the scenes and stories revolving around religion to be the most beautiful things written in the series (especially Saint Fire). She also tackles more supernatural/magical elements in a way that is typical of her writing style-that is, in a way so that the reader doesn't realize it's magic or unrealistic, only that it makes a strange sort of sense within the context.

While I did find the conclusion of Venus Preserved to be a bit over-the-top, I thoroughly enjoyed most of this series and have aspects of each book that I truly loved. Faces Under Water was intriguing because of the deadly mask, and Eurydiche's face which was a mask. Saint Fire was bizarre and enjoyable because of the intense fervor shared by Volpa and her knight. A Bed of Earth was tragic and magical, with a plot that transcended time, space, and any sort of logic while maintaining an atmosphere of unlimited possibilities and hope.

Recommendation: If you're curious about Tanith Lee's fiction and are a fan of the slightly sinister and epic tales in general, I would recommend both The Secret Books of Venus as well as The Secret Books of Paradys. My favorite Venetian book was A Bed of Earth, and I see no reason why you couldn't start there if you were so inclined.

Similar Reads: The Secret Books of Paradys by Tanith Lee (Book of the Damned, Book of the Beast, Book of the Dead, Book of the Mad), The Birthgrave by Tanith Lee

Lee, Tanith. Faces Under Water. Woodstock, NY: The Overlook Press, 1998.

Lee, Tanith. Saint Fire. Woodstock, NY: The Overlook Press, 1999.

Lee, Tanith. A Bed of Earth. Woodstock, NY: The Overlook Press, 2002.

Lee, Tanith. Venus Preserved. Woodstock, NY: The Overlook Press, 2003.

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