Jirel of Joiry (1969)

This is the Paperback Library collection Jirel of Joiry (1969), which collects (like most Joiry collections) all but one of C. L. Moore’s Jirel stories (omitted is her collaboration with her husband, Henry Kuttner, “Quest of the Starstone”). The cover artist, unfortunately, is unknown.

These stories are alarmingly modern in sensibility, and starkly undercut a lot of escapist power fantasy that folks assume is baked into the genre — doubly shocking considering Jirel is the first female hero of sword and sorcery. The first details Jirel’s first dangerous brush with magic. This underscores the action of the second story, “Black God’s Kiss,” an acknowledged classic. That one see’s Jirel’s kingdom conquered. Rather than submit to the conqueror, who roughly tries to “kiss” her, Jirel attempts to tear his throat out with her teeth. Failing at that, she slips out of her cell and embarks on journey to a dark land accessed through a trap door beneath her castle, a phantasmagoric landscape of forests and mountains that somehow exist underground (in a wonderfully sinister bit, Jirel is initially enclosed in impenetrable darkness until she removes her crucifix). Horrible creatures live there. She seeks out the statue (is it a statue, though?) of the titular god and gives it a kiss, which she carries back and passes along to the conqueror, killing him.

“Black God’s Shadow” forces Jirel to reckon with the consequences of her actions in the previous story in ways that are honestly surprising now, let alone when the story was first published in 1934. “The Dark Land,” probably the weakest of the stories, involves another unwanted suitor. “Hellsgarde,” the final story, is a sinister treasure hunt.

And that’s it, unfortunately. Still, Jirel looms large. Her stories imply a much richer history beyond the events they present, though, even if we can only perceive them through a fog of imagination.

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