Saturday, June 25, 2011

Girl on Book Action: Heart-Beast by Tanith Lee

Heart-Beast by Tanith Lee
ISBN: 0-7472-3916-9


After the violent death of his father, Daniel Vehmund seeks refuge in an exotic faraway land.  But his peace is shattered after contact with a fabulous diamond stolen from an ancient tomb.  Thenceforth Daniel is doomed at every full moon to become something else – something dark and powerful and savage.  And nothing originating on this earth can destroy it.

Beautiful redhaired Laura lives in rural poverty with two appalling sisters and her selfish, grasping parents.  But her life of drudgery is miraculously transformed when she is wooed and wed by a wealthy local squire.

Shadows gather, however, when a traveling magician persuades her lovesick husband to buy for her a very unusual gem.  For this is the same diamond which blighted Daniel Vehmund’s destiny.  And when Daniel himself at last returns home, his fate and Laura’s are devastatingly intertwined.

And all the while some dark malignant presence continues to prowl the woodlands and hedgerows...


My Thoughts:

I’m beginning to develop a serious problem in my reading habits.  I find myself constantly enjoying secondary characters more than main characters and thus, I am left with the task of mourning one literary crush after another (I hope you all remember the episode with Lord Tezdal *sigh*).   True to form (and my growing predicament) Tanith Lee presented me with a secondary character I simply adored - and then proceeded to kill him in a superbly depressing and lengthy fashion.   Fortunately, I knew enough about Lee's writing going in to realize that her unrelentingly bleak and soul-crushing novel would add to my literary-crush woes.

This book delivered everything I was expecting: a suitably Gothic atmosphere, reasonably interesting characters, elements of the uncanny and a bleak ending.  That said, it wasn’t perfect and a couple of things did bother me.  The first, of these is that I don’t quite understand how the diamond works – why does it turn Daniel into a monster, but no one else?  This is never explained explicitly enough.  I mean, there is a lot of talk about how it unleashes a darkness that was already inside him, but he’s not the only person with that kind of stain.  The other thing that began to irritate me was that sometimes we’d switch to the point of view of characters who are outside the narrative, seeing things from the point of view of the “extras” so to speak.   One section in particular stands out in this regard.  Slight spoiler ahead.  It’s toward the end of the book, when some flighty girl we see twice in very brief conversations is suddenly the focus of the story.  She seeks out a caravan to have her fortune told.  I understand that the scene was meant to show that the magician character was in the area, but learning the girl’s fortune was really not even tangential to the novel.  End of slight spoilers.  Last in the complaint department, I have to say that I know the doomed love affair is supposed to be the one between Daniel and Laura, but I felt little sympathy for either.  My compassion was for Hyperion, the jilted husband, not either of the protagonists.

Griping aside – I loved the different settings.  The description of the Eastern city was amazing and made me long for warmth and spices (given the long and cold spring we’ve had that’s not really surprising).  And then when we got to England and Hyperion’s mansion...well, all I can say is *swoon* and I want live there!  It seemed Gothic and perfect.  Milkmaid Laura really doesn’t do him justice. 

Turning to the characters, I also liked how detached Daniel is from his surroundings – everything rolls off him, nothing truly touches him.  He’s not a part of this world and it quickly becomes clear that he’s not part of any world.  Oddly enough, I didn’t like Laura.  You’d think that I’d be all for her strong-willed pride, her desire to be more than the rest of her family, her ambitions, but mostly I was annoyed with her.  In the end, it comes down to the fact that all her bluster about independence comes to nothing, not only with her agreeing to marry, but with the decisions she makes in the last section of the book.  She’s not as strong as she likes to think she is, she’s just wilfull, but not in a liberated way, more in the way of a petulant child.  I understand the fairy-tale elements at play here, but I was rooting for Hyperion all along (a fool’s devotion, that).  He was earnest, good and maybe a bit flighty, which is to say, he was doomed from the first page (and if you’re wondering why I didn’t label that as a spoiler ... it’s a Tanith Lee novel, so you can safely assume that everyone suffers a terrible fate of one sort or another).  Now, where was I?  Right, gushing about Hyperion. 

Real SPOILERS ahead:

In the last 80 pages of the book, Hyperion really comes into his own – his light-heartedness is tempered and he becomes a touch more serious, more sad.  And my heart really went out to the guy – he really loves Laura, but she’s all “Daniel, oh Daniel, let’s have earth-shattering sex in my husband’s house while he sits alone in his study where he can hear us.”  Sure, she tells him to leave – but maybe she should have been the one to clear out.  It’s his house!  His death scene, the sad little banquet he puts on for himself, was heartbreaking.  He deserved better than that, is all I’m saying.

Right, I’m done bemoaning things that were inevitable.

Alright, I’ll admit, this wasn’t exactly high literature, but it was entertaining, bleak and sexy.   While it certainly left me feeling a bit crushed beneath the a weight of cosmic dread at the futility of fighting against an unbeatable monster, it also gave me that giddy feeling I get when I read something that’s so deliciously good.  I really need to read more of Lee’s stuff.  Apparently I enjoy having my heart toyed with as long as its done in a sufficiently Gothic setting.

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