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Literature / Tales from the Flat Earth

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Tales from the Flat Earth is a fantasy series by Tanith Lee, consisting of novels and short stories.

The setting is a world that is flat and square, and floats amid formless chaos. Its cosmology consists of four "layers"; apart from the Flat Earth itself, they are the Underearth (realm of the demons), the Upperearth (realm of the gods), and the Innerearth (realm of the dead).

This series contains examples of:

  • And I Must Scream: Zhirek attempts this by placing the immortal Simmu in the Earth Flame, expecting Simmu to burn forever. But because of Simmu's childhood with the demonic Eshva and his actions as an adult, he's so spiritually corrupted that he's instantly reduced to ashes. Simmu's adopted Eshva parents then rescue his ashes and have him restored as an artificial Eshva.
  • Artifact of Attraction: A collar made from the gems that were Ferazhin's tears. Any mortal who sees it has to have it, causing murder and mayhem.
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  • Barrier Maiden: Kassafeh and the other sacred virgins are linked to the Well of Immortality on Earth and the one in Upper Earth directly above. When Simmu deflowers all of them, this cracks the crystal lake above and some of the Water of Immortality falls into the well on Earth.
  • Body to Jewel: Ferazhin, who was created from a flower, has tears that turn into gems.
  • Creative Sterility: In Death's Master, the immortal inhabitants of Simmurad stagnate because they're not driven by the awareness of having a limited amount of time in which to achieve.
  • Does Not Wear Shoes
    • Zhirem, from Death's Master, grew up barefoot and was Nigh-Invulnerable from childhood exposure to the supernatural Earth Flame; and after he has grown up into the powerful (and pretty evil) sorcerer Zhirek, he dresses in rich vestments, but still goes barefoot, as he is used to it. Later on, after he had become the philosopher Dathanja, a kind-hearted princess gave him shoes, "which he even wore sometimes".
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    • Azhriaz, Night's Daughter, usually wanders barefoot as she scorns human convention and is completely indestructible so isn't inconvenienced by stepping on anything sharp.
  • Fisher King: In Death's Master, Narasen's kingdom is cursed to be as barren as she was. After her death, she returns and reinvokes the curse in jealous revenge, contaminating the land with the poison that killed her.
  • Gender Bender: Simmu, one of the main characters of Death's Master, has the ability to shift easily between male and female.
  • The Gods Must Be Lazy: While the series definitely has Gods, they're Neglectful Precursors who created the universe, got bored with it, and now do nothing but stand around contemplating their own greatness. They've intervened in the world approximately three times, all of which were to deliver smack-downs on anyone who dared to challenge them. The primary protagonists of the series are chief demons/personifications of dark forces named the "Lords of Darkness," particularly Azhrarn, the Lord of Evil, who has a Blue-and-Orange Morality, and is probably as old as the Gods themselves. Much of the series is devoted to showing how he manipulates humanity for his own pleasure, but is still (arguably) a friendlier force to humanity than the Gods. In the first book, after inadvertently beginning a chain of events leading to the Apocalypse, he enters Heaven to ask the Gods to do something, which they point-blank refuse, after which he proceeds to save the world himself.
  • Gods Need Prayer Badly: The Lords of Darkness are personifications of human ideas such as Death and Madness, and most would cease to exist without human belief; the first Lord, the personification of Wickedness, is stated to be older than humanity, but it's implied even he would be diminished without humans around. The Gods themselves don't seem to care one bit whether humans die or not, and regard a very real threat to humanity with a nonchalant shrug.
  • Head-Turning Beauty: The Flat Earth is still in a time of legend and myth, so many legendary beauties exist in the stories. There's far more headturners of both sexes than there are ugly people. Examples range from Queen Zoraya to Azhriaz, Night's Daughter.
  • Hell Has New Management: In Death's Master, the Queen of Innerearth was a human queen, Narasen, who owed Death a thousand years of servitude. However, she was too much of a queen to act as anyone's servant, and Uhlume, lord of Death, instead abdicated much of his role to her. He decided he liked roaming the Earth, but the inhabitants of Hell want him to come back and relieve them of Narasen's harsh rule.
  • Immortality Inducer: The Waters of Immortality, the ironic thing is that it's in Upper Earth and only accessible by the gods who are naturally immortal and never needed the waters.
  • Life Drain: In Death's Master, there's a wizard who takes on an apprentice and charges only one fee for his lessons: he gets to bugger the kid every night. When the apprentice finally quits, the wizard reveals that the sex was draining off years of his life (which were transferred to the wizard); and that to add insult to injury, for the few years left of the boy's life, he will act more like the lustful old wizard himself.
  • Jerkass God: Becoming lazy is actually a moral improvement for the gods. Before they make one member take action against Azhriaz, the gods mention that back when they were active in the world they liked to murder and rape just because they could.
  • Mary Sue: In the preface of the 2017 reprinting of Delusion's Master, Tanith Lee writes that the unearthly Dunizel is an idealized version of her mother as a teenager. However in this case, it works very well due to Tanith's strength as a writer. Dunizel's flawlessness is so alien is that it makes her admired but remote to other people (not that she minds) and in the mythical Flat Earth setting, fantastically beautiful and good people aren't rare - Dunizel is just the most extreme example.
  • Mystical Pregnancy: Dunizel is still a virgin when she's pregnant carrying Azhriaz, since Azhrarn impregnated Dunizel by giving her his blood. Initially Azhriaz is seen as a miracle from the gods, but is later decryed as an Enfant Terrible when it was discovered that Azhrarn is the father. A hysterical mob then claimed Dunizel was only technically a virgin because she was getting sodomized by Azhrarn and she gave birth anally.
  • Mystical White Hair: Dunizel's hair is "naturally" the silver or platinum described to her. She was born with it, as her mother Sunfire was pregnant with her when she came in contact with a magical comet.
  • Neglectful Precursors: The Gods created the universe, got bored with it, and now do nothing but stand around contemplating their own greatness. They've intervened in the world approximately three times, all of which were to deliver smack-downs on anyone who dared to challenge them.
  • Our Ghouls Are Creepier: Ghouls are powerful supernatural beings that appear as beautiful humans and are incredibly gifted at love-making. They are an evil race and enjoy eating humans as a delicacy. Ghouls can interbreed with humans though the resulting offspring are weaker than a pure ghoul with succeeding generations further degenerating. The mightiest ghouls are nearly indestructible as no spell or physical force can harm them, a way to defeat one is to shine a light at it and then cut out its shadow. Its supernatural nature makes the shadow a corporeal thing and without a shadow, a ghoul is helpless and can be killed with normal means. The entire race meet their end when they annoy the demon princess, Azhriaz the Night's Daughter, who magically seals them within their city and they turn on each other, succumbing eventually to cannibalism or starvation.
  • The Power of Hate: One character in Night's Master hates so greatly that when he dies, his hate lingers and grows into a Tulpa so powerful that it threatens the world and is only destroyed by Azhrarn's Heroic Sacrifice.
  • Rape Leads to Insanity: Zoraya would have taken up being a healer, just like the recently dead hermit that took her in as mutilated baby. But getting raped by a brutal vagrant pushed Zoraya, who was already dealing with anger and resentment, over the edge. Zoraya instead devotes herself to black magic (the vagrant being her first victim) and becomes a Sorcerous Overlord.
  • Starcrossed Lovers: The Tales have many of them, perhaps the biggest example is Chud (the incarnation of Delusion) and Azhriaz who are kept apart by her father Azhrarn who was in turn starcrossed lovers with Azhriaz's mother, Dunizel.
  • Super Weight: The gods (Tier 6) and the Lords of Darkness (Tier 5) are in the cosmic tier, though the gods are far more powerful and capable of creating the cosmos. Azhrarn is the foremost of the Lords of Darkness and the only thing he could do to a god is make its clothes burn a little before the effect is undone. The 3 angels that a single god created to kill Azhriaz, are stated to be only a little bit less powerful than Azhrarn and that god barely made an effort in their creation. Azhriaz herself clocks in at upper 4 or lower 5, being somewhat less powerful than a Lord of Darkness but far beyond any other being in the world.
  • Women Prefer Strong Men: The half-human Kassafeh can only love a hero. She falls out of love with her husband Simmu after their immortality makes them both lethargic. Kassafeh regains her liveliness when she meets Uhlume and falls in love with him, as there's no greater hero than Death himself. She becomes his immortal mistress after that.
  • Wonder Child: A foolish girl who wants a child steals a kiss from an angel-like sky elemental. He tells her that she'll conceive their child the next time she and her husband are together after the wedded couple already have 4 children; she does, and thereby hangs the tale.
  • World's Most Beautiful Woman: Azhrarn makes Queen Zoraya the most beautiful woman in the world. She's so beautiful that armies surrender to her. Because the Tales takes place over thousands of years, there are others for their particular time period. Special note goes to an intergenerational trio of superhumanly beautiful young women: Sunfire gives birth to Dunizel and ascends to the stars shortly after, Dunizel grows up and gives birth to Azhriaz the Night's Daughter and she's murdered shortly after, Azhriaz would grow up and be worshipped as a goddess as she has a reign of terror on Earth.

Alternative Title(s): Deaths Master


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