Black God’s Kiss
C. L. Moore
Paizo, 2007 (orig. Weird Tales, 1934)
Jirel of Joiry first introduced by C. L. Moore in 1934 in the pages of Weird Tales is noted as being one of the first post-Conan Howard influenced sword and sorcery protagonists as well as the first heroine of the sword and sorcery genre (ed note: I won’t lie that first bit about Conan comes via wikipedia, the reference was cited as being from Lin Carter so anyone who wants to take umbrage may rightly do so). Paizo, once again continuing their brilliant use of the Planet Stories name, republished all five of the Jirel stories as single volume in 2007 as Black God’s Kiss. Moore’s fiction is notable for its use of exotic landscapes and in each of Jirel tales the location plays a key role in informing the tone of the story. Of course, while Jirel is well versed in use of arms, her real key trait though is her temper, her indomitable will, and her independence.
Jirel herself, particularly her will and determination, forms the axis upon which all of her stories are told. The primary conflict of each tale, while typically involving some kind of deadly threat, is more often than not also a threat that seeks to suborn Jirel’s mastery of her self and her destiny. In the opening Jirel tale, the titular Black God’s Kiss, that threat comes from a conquering warlord who dominates Joiry itself and seeks to possess Jirel. Jirel’s rage over this, prompted by a stolen kiss, is what drives her to consort with otherworldly and horrific entities in order to prove that she cannot be mastered. The tale is also one of the few instances where Jirel’s flaws shine through wherein her drive for independence and her rage blinds her to deeper emotions. That first story reveals much as Jirel’s anger proves to be a strength and a weakness. In Jirel Meets Magic it is Jirel’s anger and her pledge of vengeance against a sorcerer that sets her at odds with an ancient and powerful god-like sorceress and in The Dark Land it is Jirel’s rage (even in death) at an ancient entity which desires her for his wife that drives her forward to near destruction.
Notable, in that it doesn’t quite set Jirel up against a near god-like power, is Hellsgarde. Hellsgarde see Jirel finding her way to a hidden, haunted castle finds it occupied by a mysterious and unsettling group. Hellsgarde is an excellent example of one of the Jirel tales more endearing elements: the use of horror. It shouldn’t be a surprise that Jirel, birthed amongst the pages of Weird Tales, is plagued by horrific elements but what is a surprise is just how integral that atmosphere is to each and every Jirel story. Moore excels at crafting a horrific atmosphere; covering her stories in a cloak of unease. From Jirel’s initial approach to the titular castle where she is greeted by a ghastly sight of soldiers speared to the ground outside its gates (in a particular moment of seemingly macabre glee Moore has one of said soldiers slide wetly to ground as Jirel passes) to the castles strange inhabitants who can see in the dark and imbibe a strange meat, to the final revelation of just what those people are the sense of darkness and unease is palpable.
In truth it is the landscape in each of the tales that often provides the weird elements of the stories. In Black God’s Kiss and Black God’s Shadow it is the strange dimension with its unfamiliar stars, and strange inhabitants. In Jirel Meets Magic it is the forested land beyond the door in a magician’s tower and in The Dark Land it is the strange world Jirel is drawn to after death. In each Moore manages to paint a truly strange landscape far different from our own and one that lends an air of other-worldliness to these stories that makes them rather unique compared to what I have read in the genre so far.
There is a certain timeless quality to the Jirel tales. They are as absorbing as they were over 80 years ago. Moore was right at home in Weird Tales as the strange and dark are right home in the land of Joiry. While others might quail when facing off against those alien and inhuman entities that exist in this world and others Jirel’s certainty of self and her will to remain her own person serve as formidable weapons where other mortal arms might fail. I admit that I skipped the final tale in this collection, Quest of the Starstone (co-written with Moore’s husband Henry Kutner), which is a crossover featuring Jirel and Moore’s other creation Northwest Smith. I’ll be returning to that tale once I’ve read some Northwest Smith stories. If you’re a fantasy fan and haven’t had a chance to take a look at C. L. Moore’s Jirel of Joiry than you really should do yourself a favor and check her out. Moore’s tales are vividly drawn featuring atmosphere of dread that is all too rare in most modern fantasy fiction.