It is continually frustrating to read a rich, suspenseful, beautifully crafted book and then find that hardly anybody else knows about it — such is apparently the case with Tanith Lee’s The Castle of Dark. Containing an imprisoned damsel, a spooky castle, a magical harp and a mysterious secret, this is a wonderful book that has the same tone and atmosphere of an old dark fairytale.
The chapters switch back and forth between two characters: Lilune is a strange young woman living with two hags in an abandoned and dark castle. With hair down to the ground and without any need to consume food, Lilune is intensely lonely and curious about the outside world. Lir is a young harper, chosen for his calling in his youth by an unnamed traveler who instructs him on the crafting of a beautiful harp that makes the most beautiful music.
When Lir is called to the Dark Castle by Lilune’s magic he finds himself caught up in webs of secrecy by the nearby villages, the two hags and Lilune herself. Why is this young maiden kept chained to her bed? Why is she allergic to the sun’s light? And what dark influence has followed the two of them as they escape from the Castle into the world?
It’s very difficult to write any more without destroying the intrigue and mystery captured within this book. With a style that is quite Tolkien-esque, in a world that is beautifully brought to life by Lee’s poetic language, The Castle of Dark is a short but memorable read. Without bogging us down with boring facts and encyclopedic knowledge about this fantasy world (like other fantasy authors feels compelled to do) Lee creates a dark fairytale setting simply, vividly and realistically: moist and green forests where grey lions stalk between the trees, the splendor and pomp of a city’s royal court, and of course the creepy and mysterious Castle itself. Just being able to explore these places is reason enough to read this book.
There is another thread of intrigue in the form of Lir’s “mentor,” whom he dubs ‘Wild-Eyes,’ an elusive figure that claims to have harped in Hell itself (the devil apparently is quite a gentleman) and reveals some quite profound truths about the nature of music.
Lir and Lilune make great protagonists, both with their flaws, but both likeable and sympathetic, whilst simultaneously remaining a fey-like quality about them that makes us certain that we’d never meet anyone like them in our own world. Refreshingly, Lee does not force a romance between them, and in fact their relationship plays out more like a brother/sister bond. As the only two characters in the story that are given names, their two separate paths are intricately plotted together — and Lilune’s plight may just move you to tears.
A simple, but beautiful and poignant book The Castle of Dark is one of those rare fantasy books that reads as totally original, yet with resonance to real myths and legends of the world. I’m sure you won’t regret tracking it down.