The Birthgrave was first published in 1975, and I read it not long after. It made such an impact that it joined the select group of books I've read more than once, and now I've read it for the third time, decades later. I had forgotten almost everything except the general outline, so I was able to enjoy it all over again.
The story is set on another world, with an early medieval culture; small city states, nomadic groups, constant little wars and skirmishes, swords and primitive cannon, and multiple deities. The nameless heroine is the sole survivor of a race of cruel, humanoid, super-beings who had previously ruled this world before being wiped out by disease, leaving their human slaves to carry on. She wakes after a long coma and goes out into the world, where she is hailed as a goddess but finds herself strangely powerless, haunted by dreams of the magnificence and horror of her past. She is controlled and manipulated by ambitious men, and only breaks free right at the end of the book, which suddenly includes a science fiction element to add to the fantasy.
Tanith Lee's writing is rich and strong, powerfully evocative of the cultures her heroine moves through. It is frequently gritty and brutal; the death rate around the heroine – among friends as well as enemies – reaches epic proportions. There is a sustained account of a vicious form of chariot race, in which the tension is gradually built up from the initial preparations, through the training and into the race itself, until its crashing climax. This passage is so well-written and gripped me so strongly that I couldn't put the book down until the race was over.
If there is any criticism I could make of the book, it is that a greater than usual suspension of disbelief is required to accept an almost invulnerable super-race of god-like powers, who can live on air and even survive for years in a coma in an airless environment. There is also an unexplained inconsistency in the basic timeline of the book: the heroine grows from child to adult while in a sixteen-year coma and is supposed to be only twenty, yet the cities of her youth had fallen into ancient ruins and the memory of her race had faded into legend.
One thing which slightly surprised me: a couple of scenes which I recalled from previous readings weren't actually in the book; they must be in the sequels, Shadowfire and Quest for the White Witch. Oh well, they're sitting on my shelf with a rather expectant air…