No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Tuesday, September 10, 1996

Reigning Cats and Dogs -- Tanith Lee

A man is flycycling home from a rendezvous with his mistress when a huge black dog's head appears among the clouds. Another projected advertisement, he thinks; then the fiery gaze meets his, and he begins to fall …
The City of Reigning Cats and Dogs is never named, but it has recognisable parallels to Dickensian London; the elite quote Hamlet, Egyptian monuments stand on the Embankment, and a 'great domed cathedral' rises above the slums of Black Church. Most of all, though, this is the City of Dreadful Night: 'And all about a city hummed and sighed, and he did not know it or its name, nor any name for the blackness of the sky and air, which were night'.

Grace is a whore with the gift of healing, who imparts an incomprehensible sense of well-being to her clients. Saul Anger, abused and sold as a child, has risen to head the Brotherhood, a shadowy group of men whose desire is to cleanse the city of sin and corruption. Something sinister has come to the City; it is dog-headed, with glowing eyes, and it kills by perverting time - so that a child may become an impossibly aged crone, and an old man's corpse resembles that of an aborted foetus. Saul fears that the Brotherhood have created this monster, but he does not know how to combat it. It is Balthazar the Jew, to whom two mudlarks have brought a jade statue from the river, who tells Grace of the ritual that must be completed.

Tanith Lee's recent work has tended towards an almost impenetrable Gothic mode, full of blood and stained glass. Reigning Cats and Dogs is lighter and less intense than, for example, Dark Dance. Lee's wit, and her talent for visual description, are at their best here; images of cats and dogs recur throughout the novel, and there are a variety of neatly-turned metaphors for corruption and for the juxtaposition of science and squalor. Grace is a typical Lee heroine - 'helpless and broken, adrift on the sea of night' - and Saul's damaged personality echoes that of other male leads in Lee's novels; their appearances, and the pointed contrast between the two, makes them almost archetypal.

The elements of Egyptian mythology, although fundamental to the plot, are played down in favour of the evocation of a dark and terrible city, surreally Gothic without losing all human perspective. Farce, tragedy, eroticism, and a London that might have been.

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