The Gods Are Thirsty

Not being a historian of the French Revolution, I refuse to judge how closely fantasy writer Tanith Lee has stuck to the known facts in writing her unusual new historical novel, The Gods are Thirsty (Overlook Press, $26.95 hard). Suffice it to say that a) it doesn't matter, and b) I wouldn't care if it did. Lee's novel depicts the last five years of 18th-century French journalist and revolutionary Camille Desmoulins' life. While it was occasionally awkward, in the end swept me away in grand fashion.

As a historical novel, The Gods are Thirsty could sweep almost any reader off his or her feet. Lee has always had a gift for creating vivid characters, and here she does not disappoint -- from Marie Antoinette to Maximilien Robespierre, this novel is full of historical personages who find breath for the first time in centuries, animated by her elegant and sensual language. Lee's opulent prose seduces the reader into all manner of stylistic surprises. However, that same prose, complicated by a convoluted storyline and shifting points of view, occasionally makes The Gods are Thirsty difficult to follow for all but the most determined reader.

If Lee's story does not simplify its narrative enough to fully qualify for popular historical novel status, it may not completely satisfy highbrow readers, either. But I personally forgave the book any perceived shortcomings for the sake of its central character. Under Lee's hand, Camille Desmoulins takes shape as a small man with a grand heart, a heart and ideals too big, perhaps, for his one little life. He lacked both the canniness and the reserve to be either a politician or even much of a philosopher. He was a man possessed by a single idea -- freedom -- and a single talent, and in many ways he was weak.

Tragedy technically is the province of royalty and of great men. But perhaps more powerful in some ways is the tragedy of a small man: I have read that the display of giants is interesting just as an animal in the zoo, captured for our curiosity, is interesting. The display of a human being, however, of a weak and petty man or woman afflicted with the grandest of yearnings and swept up into events beyond human control, holds the same inevitable attraction as a mirror. Desmoulins' life was a tragedy, complete with hubris and the "quite frightening" hand of fate; The Gods are Thirsty, while an enjoyably terrifying read, is also a reminder of the imminence of tragedy in the smallest of lives. -- B.S.

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