The Gods Are Thirsty: A Novel of the French Revolution

Tanith Lee, Author Overlook Press $26.95 (528p) ISBN 978-0-87951-672-7

A writer would seem to be the ideal protagonist of a historical novel, since writers are by nature obsessive, if not always reliable, observers and chroniclers of their times. Prolific writer Lee (The Book of the Mad) has chosen Camille Desmoulins, vitriolic pamphleteer and one of the catalysts of the French Revolution, to serve as her narrator. She follows him from his first public act (inciting a crowd to riot) in the summer of 1789 through years of political and social intrigue to his beheading in the spring of 1794. Desmoulins, contending with his chronic stammer, self-doubt and turbulent emotions, is curiously unappealing in his role as histrionic media pundit. His importance to the novel should hinge on his observation of, and relationship to, the large cast of characters surrounding him, but readers may not consider him a guide worth following. His wife, Lucile, is portrayed in an immaculate manner that prevents her from ever becoming more than a saintly caricature. Lee's decision to alternate between first- and third-person narration is sometimes confusing, as well. Her depiction of Paris and the politics of revolution is thoroughly detailed, though the novel sometimes feels like a bloody, 18th-century version of C-SPAN as the National Assembly, as well as clubs like the Jacobins and Cordeliers, are bogged down in endless debates, accounts of which slow the narrative. Violent mobs careen through the streets with tidal regularity while political leaders enjoy the fruits of their revolutionary labors--wine, women and rhetoric. The best historical novels breathe life into their characters and make readers feel they have traveled in time, but the people here remain history-book figures to the bloody end. 50,000 first printing; $30,000 ad/promo. (Nov.)