I found the first book of Tanith Lee’s THE SECRET BOOKS OF VENUS series, Faces Under Water, in a used bookstore recently. To call Lee a prolific writer is to understate things somewhat. I had never heard of this series, set in an alternate Venice and based on the four elements. They were published by Overlook Press in the late 1990s and early twenty-first century.
Faces Under Water is short but dense, and I would say that it provides everything Lee is known for. This means I really liked parts of it and was very irked with others. At times I felt like I was reading a template or a pattern, not a book. (“Here’s where I dump in some gorgeous description. Here’s where I truncate a sentence to change the pacing. Here’s where I use artful, poetic repetition, and here’s where my characters engage in witty and elliptical dialogue.”)
Furian Furiano is a Venetian who came from an aristocratic family, but mysteriously gave all that up at the age of eighteen. He lives in the slums and does work for the eccentric and shady alchemist Shaachen, mostly by hunting for newly dead human bodies for Shaachen to experiment with. One night during Carnival, Furian finds a mask floating in one of the canals. During Carnival, it’s the law that everyone be masked. A floating mask hints at a body. Furian doesn’t find one, but the mask is beautiful and sinister, and he takes it to the alchemist who says it is a thing of evil magic.
That same night, Furian sees a woman in a butterfly mask leaving a boat and going into a villa on the very canal where the mask floated. He becomes curious about the woman’s identity and is sure she is connected with the mask’s owner.
There is something wrong with Furian and at first it is hard to tell exactly what it is. He wallows in slum life, cruelty, and sordidness and he seems to be something of a contrarian — if the wine is sour, he drinks a second goblet of it, for instance. We might describe him as being clinically depressed, but soon we figure out that he is under a curse. Meanwhile, vandals break into Shaachan’s house, steal back the mask and kill the alchemist’s familiar, a magpie. Shortly after that, a wealthy aristocratic woman who is wearing a unique and beautiful mask goes mad and dies. Furian notices all of this, but he is still obsessed with the butterfly-masked woman, Eurydice. Eurydice does not speak, but she leads Furian deeper into the mystery of the deaths and the masks. As information about the masks and the mask-makers surfaces, so do more facts about Furian’s past and the curse that has led him to this life.
The idea of masks as instruments of magical assassination is an interesting one, and this part of the story is well-crafted. The relationship between Furiano and Eurydice has the mild sado-masochism I expect from Lee; Furiano loves Eurydice but turns on her almost immediately, verbally abusing her, knowing, since she doesn’t speak, that she can’t defend herself. Eurydice is portrayed as a woman who is being controlled and used as bait by a powerful older man, like many Lee heroines. It has worked better in other places, such as the novella “Cyrion,” than it works here.
Lee also tries to make the magical villains sexy-scary in a kind of sex club/leather bar way; pudgy naked men in masks are scary, but maybe not for the reasons Lee thinks. Similarly, a male villain who flirts with his male victim as well as threatening him is now a very dated idea.
That said, I loved the exquisite prose. In particular, there is a scene where Furiano is taken underwater, through the submerged city of Venice, that is rich and hallucinatory. The character of Shaachan is wonderful and layered, and his actions drive the resolution in the final scene. Line by line, Lee’s prose is gorgeous and her alternate Venice is lovely and sinister. If you’re going to read this, read it for the magic and the beautiful words.