Originally published in 1976 but now available in a pleasing new edition from DAW, 'Companions on the Road' comprises a pair of fantasy novellas by Tanith Lee that are clearly YA in outlook; I don't believe that term was in use at the time and I'm unsure as to whether the book was pitched to children or adults. Each of the stories is presented in straightforward fashion with a small cast of characters and involves a magical item caught up in a clearly defined quest. That said, there's depth to be found and the stories may well resonate with readers.
The first novella carries the same title as the book and follows three men as they leave a sacked city during war with a looted treasure. Two were soldiers fighting in the army of the Southern King as it took Avillis. Feluce is a rogue out for what he can get, but Havor is a decent man who retires after the battle to fulfil the dying wish of a soldier under his command, to deliver a bag of money to his family. A brief run-in with Kachil, who robs both of them, leads the trio to a hidden room and a large chalice made of gold. They take it, of course.
The catch is that the chalice belonged to the Lord of Avillis, about whom many stories are told, not least that he and his family were worshippers of the dark. Where this takes us, of course, is that the chalice is a tool, used in their black worship, which corrupts everything around it. Nobody that our trio encounter on their journey wants anything to do with it or, by extension, those who carry it, and three mysterious figures follow in their wake, an avenging trio that could well be the dead Magus-Lord of Avillis, his warlock son and his sorceress daughter, each of whom chose death by fire in their castle over capture.
We're given precious little background to this world, being thrown instead into a battle that's over as soon as it begins, so we have no grounding in the sides at play. We don't even know what the sides are or what they stand for, just that one is led by the Southern King, the Black Bear of the South. Unlike most fantasy stories, this isn't about kings and lords; we're at the other end of the social spectrum following a trio of men who find themselves caught up in something a lot bigger than they are. What we care about is whether they can deal with it and what in them might allow them to do so.
If 'Companions of the Road' is an albatross tale, wrapped up in a hint of 'weight of sins', 'The Winter Players' is, at least initially, an even simpler quest. A young lady named Oaive is the latest in a line of priestesses who look after a shrine where the land meets the sea. She has various responsibilities but one is secret, the guarding of a set of three relics: a ring, a jewel and a small piece of bone. Nobody knows about these relics but her; she was inducted into the secret by her teacher, the previous priestess, and so on back down the line to time immemorial.
The catch here is that a man, young but with grey hair, comes to see her precisely because he wants one of the relics that he's not supposed to know about, the piece of bone, and, when she fails to protect it with her sorcery, he steals it. She gives chase, though he's riding a horse and she's on foot, and the majority of the story recounts her quest. 'The Winter Players' not being quite as straightforward as 'Companions of the Road', there's discovery at the end of her journey and a neatly crafted clash of powers to wrap up a story that she finds is much bigger than her.
The themes here are very similar. The protagonists are down-to-earth people: soldiers, a thief, a priestess. Their journeys become vastly more than they expect in many ways: length, danger, importance. Those who live find something new inside them that helps them to fulfill what could easily be seen as a destiny. And, as their quests end, they find that, even though they achieved something great, they will forever remain forgotten in the grand scheme of things, secondary to the important physical objects that are really nothing but MacGuffins.
I liked this book and I liked these themes. I've read too many stories of heroes, whose valiant actions win them princesses or kingdoms. I appreciated that these characters, who are heroes in definition if not in trope, do what they do because it should be done, not because of any real reward. Havor, who loots a priceless chalice of gold, has reasons for why he does so that are not buried in base greed, and Oaive's motives are clearly pure but they still evolve as she learns more about who she is and what she does.
Tanith Lee was always a great creator of worlds and, while she doesn't give us much in the way of background in either novella, the biographical and geographical detail that we're used to being notably absent, she does an amazing job of immersing us in whatever worlds these are. She has a poetic turn of phrase too, without overtly aiming for flowery language, and that helps these stories shine, especially 'Companions on the Road', which is hallucinogenic at points. Havor realises that he must stay awake to keep his supernatural pursuers from him; he obtains a philtre to those ends, but his journey onward gets wilder and weirder as lack of sleep takes its toll.
These aren't the deepest or anywhere near the longest stories in the fantasy genre, but they're satisfying ones. I found 'The Winter Players' to be reminiscent of 'The Tombs of Atuan'(click here, though it does end up going in a wildly different direction in the end. Both this novella and that novel carry much more depth than might be expected from their lengths and they do what they do in refreshingly different ways. There's something to be said for a minimalist approach to fantasy and this book is a fantastic example of that. I'm very happy to see DAW bringing an increasing amount of Tanith Lee's abundant back catalogue into fresh editions. ~~ Hal C F Astell
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