My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I first discovered these collected novellas on a list whose theme I have since forgotten (adventure fantasy? standalone reads?) and added the volume to my to-read list when I read the subtitle “wondrous tales of adventure and quest” and saw that it is authored by the late great Tanith Lee. Over the holidays, I found a copy in an unexpected used book store in my hometown and snapped it up immediately.
I’m reviewing the novellas out of order, because The Winter Players, “a game of cold sorceries and burning shadows,” delivered exactly what it promised on the cover—an adventure quest of sorcerous confrontations . . . until it surprised me at the end with one of my favorite story tropes: time travel. Not only that, Lee interrogated the trope quite thoroughly while using it; her characters dissect the impact of the strange circle they’ve created, and the consequences of perpetuating or breaking it, before making their decision to try for a happy ending. And what great characters they are! Oaive and Grey are intelligent and resourceful, with deep feelings and constraints on their liberty that they find creative ways around. Occasionally, the text breezes past moments of Oaive making connections of thought and logic that feel a little too expositional, but Lee’s smooth prose carries me past these bumps. This novella could be longer, perhaps even full novel length, but it also wears its brevity well.
Companions on the Road surprised me from the outset with its ominous mood and touch of horror. The mood is employed with a deft touch – no overdone horror cues or descriptions, just an incredible sense of dread. Lee plays with this beautifully, keeping it in a place of tension throughout the story and creating an ebb and flow with moments of strangeness and unease between the travelers and other characters they meet along the road. The danger of the three pursuing figures is made immediately clear, but Havor prioritizes other feelings and problems as he encounters them, only giving the full weight of his anxiety to the three spectral figures as his companions fall away one by one. (This was the second surprise of this story: the description prepared me for an adventure story with a party of travelers I expected to follow to the end, but instead I followed only Havor.) Even as Havor surrenders to his inevitable doom, he fights against it, allowing the dread to grow and saturate the story like the best horror fiction.
The character work in Companions is superb – while Feluce and Kachil are strong foils who make Havor seem like a really great guy, Havor still possesses flaws and complications. Lukon is on the page so briefly but is so wonderfully rendered and used to highlight positive and negative aspects of the other characters. Silsi is a wonderful mirror, reflecting Havor’s stubbornness and strength and balancing Havor’s sense of doom with hope and quick wits.
Companions on the Road is compact storytelling at its best. The title is perfect, encompassing the structural parallels of the three travelers and the three pursuers, as well as playing on the idea of death personified as a companion. This novella reminded me of the writings of Lord Dunsany and leaves me excited to read even more by Tanith Lee.