Tanith Lee, Dorothy L. Sayers, P.G. Wodehouse

A Bed of Earth, by Tanith Lee: I remember reading Saint Fire, the second book in the Secret Books of Venus by Tanith Lee, about six years ago, and I’ve been meaning to finish the series ever since. Much to my delight, the other three books are at the local public library. Set in Venus, an alternate fantastical version of Venice, each book in the quartet is focused on a different alchemical element. One would think that after having read enough fantasy novels about elementals, I would have had enough by now, but this subgenre is a particular weakness of mine. Lee puts interesting twists on typical interpretations of each element though: A Bed of Earth features, for one, a first-person narrator who belongs to the Guild of Gravediggers. I’m not sure if Lee actually pulls off the fragmented storyline all that adeptly here, but I still liked the love stories in this book, few of which end happily. The setup draws heavily on Romeo and Juliet, although it assigns different aspects of the plot to different couples. I think though what I liked best were the brief appearances by Chesare Borja (based not-so-subtly on the historical Cesare Borgia).

Faces Under Water, by Tanith Lee: I was bemused once I started reading Faces Under Water, which is the first book in the quartet, to find that the book was riddled with grammatical mistakes and ungainly prose. The lush, almost gothic descriptions that I remembered from Lee’s other writing were there, but I also saw missing periods, misuse of parentheses, half-finished sentences, and a fondness for repeating sentence fragments, all of which occurred too often to be excused as a writer’s liberty to break the occasional rule. On the other hand, A Bed of Earth, which was written four years after Faces Under Water, doesn’t show such egregious errors, so I’m inclined to chalk them up to a bad editor.

As for the story itself, the book focuses on the more sordid side of Venus, with descriptions of orgies, alchemist-magicians, and corpses. Even the beautiful is also slightly horrific, like the paralyzed face of Eurydiche, whom the protagonist falls in love with. I didn’t enjoy the book as much as I’d hoped; some of more grotesque moments were just grotesque enough to make the book fall short of being the indulgence that I expected it to be. My impatience with Furian, the main character, didn’t help: in Siddharta-like fashion, he abandons the life of wealth and ease to which he was born and chooses to live in the gutters of Venus instead. I imagine Tanith Lee wanted to evoke the usual dualities inherent in the element of water (each book is based on an element): beauty and corruption, life and death, purity and filth, etc. But mostly I just felt irritated at Furian’s lack of personality and Eurydiche’s passiveness.

Hangman’s Holiday, by Dorothy L. Sayers: I seem to be reading a lot of short story collections these days. Although the choice was inadvertent; I thought Hangman’s Holiday was a full novel. The first four stories feature Wimsey, two of which I’d already read before from Lord Peter; six focus on Montague Egg, another amateur detective whose profession is traveling salesman to a wine and spirits firm; and the last two are not properly mysteries at all and describe instead the crime as it takes place. Of the latter category, “The Man Who Knew How” came off as darkly ironic, but the very last story, “The Fountain Plays”, sent a shiver up my spine. As for Monty Egg, he’s a very different character from Peter Wimsey, and his stories seem to have a much more lighthearted quality although the crimes are no less severe. It’s surprising how much social class makes a difference in the character. Both Wimsey and Egg seem comical on first impression—Wimsey with his flippancy, Egg with his earnest devotion to selling his product—but have keen, observant minds and good insight into human character. Both are also always ready with an apt quotation, although where Wimsey cites a classic or a poem, Egg has his Salesman’s Handbook memorized by heart instead. In the end, I find Wimsey the more thoroughly developed character, which is only natural given that Sayers gave him several novels’ worth of development, while Egg (as far as I know) only gets a handful of short stories. The Montague Egg mysteries are self-contained “drawing-room murders”; the solutions are deft and clever but the setting is still everyday. Wimsey, even in short story form, seems to encounter more bizarre and more complex crimes.

World of Jeeves, by P.G. Wodehouse: I think I started reading this omnibus before because I recognized the first half of the stories compiled in this volume. They’re organized in more or less chronological order too, providing a nice survey of Jeeves and Wooster’s literary lives. Wodehouse never fails to make me laugh. Each story also has a predictable pattern: Bertie has a falling-out with Jeeves, usually over a matter of fashion or proposal of vacation; he then ends up pledging to help a friend out of a (often romantic) predicament; Jeeves eventually saves the day and by the end, Bertie gives in, no matter how strongly he made up his mind to not be managed by his valet. It really is amazing how manipulative Jeeves can be: several times, he actually engineers an unsuccessful outcome but convinces Bertie that it was for the best.

What an artificial life Bertie leads! In an artificial time and artificial society. But it’s comforting to look at this rarefied bubble of time: when “going to school together” meant one could rely on the obligations of friendship, when young bachelors of a certain class had nothing better to do than to dress well and enjoy themselves (at least until their allowance was cut off by an irate relative) and fall in love every other week, when the most terrifying prospect that one could imagine is the visit of a tyrannical aunt. I’m certain that even in Wodehouse’s time, the world was nowhere near so simple. But isn’t it pleasant to imagine that it was, for just one short moment?