Jirel of Joiry by Catherine Lucille Moore
I had never heard of C.L. Moore or her stories until Poe Ghostal lent me this book, which is a bit sad, since she seems to have been quite a figure. Specifically, she was one of the earliest women writers to enter into the sword-and-sorcery genre, publishing stories in the same magazines as Robert E. Howard and H.P. Lovecraft.
Jirel of Joiry collects some of those stories, specifically the ones that deal with...Jirel of Joiry. Jirel, the ruler of a fictional kingdom located somewhere in medieval France, is very much what you might expect from a female version of a pulp protagonist. That is to say, she's a bit like Conan, if Conan were a woman. She is skilled, strong, attractive, and angry. Oh man, is Jirel angry. A number of the stories revolve around Jirel's quests to take revenge on someone for slighting her, and in several cases, it is her rage that allows her to prevail against supernatural odds.
Which is good, because the supernatural is what Jirel spends a lot of her time dealing with. With one exception, all of these stories feature Jirel journeying to another reality or plane of existence, where she does battle with the supernatural forces that live there. Those force are often powerful, terrifying, and largely incomprehensible to Jirel. Lou Anders points out that there is something almost Lovecraftian about the realms that Jirel visits, but philistine that I am, I have not read Lovecraft, and so cannot compare. They definitely are strange places, however.
The first two stories in this collection, "Black God's Kiss" and "Black God's Shadow"are very short on human (or even non-human) interaction, dealing mostly with Jirel's wanderings through strange, alien lands on her quests. Moore's descriptions of these strange dimensions are exquisite, but by the second story, I was starting to wonder if all Jirel stories were mostly tourist narratives. Of the two, I found the first one to be much more compelling, in part because I found Jirel's motivations for the quest much more convincing than I did in the second one.
In "Jirel Meets Magic", however, we finally get to see Jirel in a confrontation with forces that, if she cannot comprehend them, she can at least interact with them. This is about as classic sword-and-sorcery as you can get, with Jirel out on a quest to kill a wizard, something which is never easy, especially in these stories. Very fun stuff.
"The Dark Land" sets up an interesting confrontation, wherein Jirel's world-hopping comes back to haunt her. Of all of these stories, this one is the most "high fantasy" of them all, featuring a very new and very weird dimension that gives Jirel no end of grief, and may give the reader a headache as well.
The last story, "Hellsgarde", is interesting in that it takes place more or less on Earth (though the castle known as Hellsgarde is hardly a normal place). It's basically a haunted house story, with a bunch of weird characters for Jirel to interact with, a ghost, and a lot of creepy weirdness.
While Conan has made his mark far beyond the sword-and-sorcery genre, I get the impression that neither C.L. Moore nor her creation are nearly as well known. Which is a shame. Jirel of Joiry is every much a sword-and-sorcery protagonist equal to Conan, and ought to be remembered better. If you enjoy this type and style of writing, go pick this one up.
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