BY THIS AXE, I REVIEW!
Hey everybody, I'm back with what will (hopefully) be a weekly installment from me, "By This Axe, I Review!" And I can hear you all now, with your "What is this axe nonsense, Hurt?" Well, I'll tell you what this axe nonsense is: I'm a huge fan of Sword & Sorcery and Low Fantasy stories. Sure, I can go ten rounds with the Lord of the Rings, the Sword of Shannara, or the Silmarillion, but at the end of the day, when it comes to fantasy fiction, my heart belongs to the men and women swinging one- or (preferably) two-handed axes, swords, or warhammers against corrupt wizards, sorcerers, necromancers; really any variety of evil magic-users. Or fighting against the machinations of empires and kingdoms. Or, most likely, they've simply decided that those massive jewels and precious stones the local temple has on display would look really nice in some solo adventurer's pockets, curses and supernatural guardians be damned.
One other nice feature of sword & sorcery and other similar styles of low fantasy fiction is that, with the exception of The Black Company (and that series is a definite stretch to fit into my definition), almost all works within S&S and related genres are either short stories, vignettes, or novellas. And that, in turn, means that you don't have to set aside massive amounts of time to plow through tales like what I'll be reviewing here. Sure, from time to time I'm going to delve into longer works like J.R.R. Tolkien's recently published translation and commentary of Beowulf or Dark Horse Comics' recent re-release of P. Craig Russel's adaptation of The Ring of Niebelung (because hell yes Norse and Anglo Saxon epics count as Sword & Sorcery, and don't you forget it), but for the most part the very nature of these works means that a great many reviews will be about short stories of some form, maybe even a poem or two.
Now that I've laid the groundwork for all of you, let's dive in to the first installment: The Black God's Kiss and The Black God's Shadow from Ace Books' 1977 hardcover Jirel of Joiry anthology from Catherine Lucille Moore, credited as C.L. Moore.
The reason I've chosen these stories in tandem instead of one at a time is twofold: the aforementioned fact that they're short stories like so many other tales in this genre, and Shadow is a sequel to Kiss, picking up just a few nights later. The basic plot across both stories is this: Jirel, countess/queen/duchess of a small, fictional French medieval province named Joiry, has had her castle invaded and sacked by Guillaume, a ruthless leader of a bloodthirsty horde. Interestingly enough, we're dropped into the story right after the castle of Joiry has been conquered and Jirel is being brought before Guillaume for sentencing, which is par for the course when reading a Sword & Sorcery tale. So many of these types of stories are more Beowulf fighting Grendel one-on-one, less Battle of Helm's Deep in scope.
It's at this point that normally one would expect, in 2014, a licentious and entirely gratuitous scene where Guillaume takes out his frustrations on the sobbing and weak Jirel to make her pay for having the gall to stand up to an invading army, giving her the motivation to become a Strong Female Character and take her revenge.
That's definitely not the case here, because CL Moore wasn't a terrible writer. What we get instead is that even restrained by 3 or more men, Guillaume only manages to get a quick kiss in before Jirel rears back and bites his neck, attempting to chew into his jugular vein. She's promptly knocked out and thrown into one of her own dungeon cells for her trouble, with the promise of more disturbing punishments to come, but it's at this point where I want you to make note of the fact that in 4 pages, CL Moore has shown us a fantasy heroine (from 1934) that has kneed a guard in the groin, cursed so harshly at her captors that hardened criminals have blushed in her presence, and bitten their leader in the neck to kill him. We're not dealing with a fragile young lady forced out of her element to defend herself, but an accomplished warlord who happens to have lost a battle, but not the larger conflict yet, and is determined to get herself out of the tight spot in which she currently finds herself.
As part of her solution, we find out that Jirel's family castle sits on top of a doorway of sorts that has terrified and confounded the Vatican for years, and serves as a portal to some otherworldly realm full of monsters and demons too wild and crazy to give name to their form or function. The reason for that is these stories are being written in a post-Lovecraft world, and like some of Robert Howard's better horror fantasy, Moore borrows liberally from HPL's established method of conveying horrors of the unknown. It's in this alien environment that Jirel discovers her desired method of retribution, a kiss to convey punishment from some god-king or high lord inhabiting the chthonian abyss.
It's interesting that while Jirel is in this accursed underworld, we get a phenomenally detailed description of her surroundings and the alien inhabitants of this planet without feeling like Moore is just listing unusual attributes. Lovecraft, as mentioned above, trail-blazed (or at least codified and streamlined) the ideas of alien existences and fear of the unknown in pulp literature, but from memory I can recall that most of the time his writing could be boiled down to "If I described this for you it would drive you maaaaaaaad!" Moore, on the other hand, strives in her small allotment of pages and words to almost build an ecosystem of the alien. We get a sense of predators, prey, and a cycle of life separate from our own and indifferent to the presence of the human Queen of Joiry and all of it, while incidental, is a quality of world building entirely above and beyond what one can normally expect from a cheap pulp story. It's not on par with 1,000+ page high fantasy epics like A Song of Ice and Fire or Tolkien's work, but again, given the length of the story, it's entirely excusable. What matters is it leaves the reader with a satisfactory sense of depth and substance to Jirel's surroundings, and that's more than accomplished.
Spoilers here (for an 80 year old short story, yes, but one that's criminally under-represented in modern discussions of pulp-era fantasy fiction, so I'm gonna warn you anyway) but at the end of the story, Jirel gets her revenge. And as a kiss represented the conquering of Jirel's castle, so does it represent her reclaiming of it. And this time, instead of just being a petty show of force, it also is her revenge, damning Guillaume to an eternity of torment in a hell that has no representation in Jirel's medieval Christian world. And because of that, we get a solid, important note of humanization from Moore about Jirel, showing a moment of doubt in her mission and its accomplishment. And just like Moore's first four pages don't show what would now be a prototypical, almost cliche origin for a lady warrior, this ending is not one of her realizing she loved Guillaume the whole time and he's just misunderstood and really he just needs her to fix him. No, instead she just wonders if her punishment was just, because of the fact that it represents an alien god taking a human soul. It's not that Guillaume doesn't deserve to go to hell. It's just that he deserves to be in a human hell.
It's a weird sentiment, and deceptively complex, which makes Moore's work in the sequel story, The Black God's Shadow, all the better. This subsequent tale, as I said before, takes place a couple days at most after The Black God's Kiss, and involves Jirel going to rescue Guillaume's soul from the clutches of the titular Black God. And while there is a ponderous same-ness to Jirel exploring the exact same alien planet locked under her castle, the circumstances and her own familiarity with it keep repetition to an acceptable minimum. Moore doesn't bore us with simple retracing Jirel's journey from the first book, this time she is actively attacking the Black God in its own domain. However, unlike many of Robert Howard's Conan stories where the Cimmerian beats an unknowable emperor of some apocalyptic eldritch abyss with a solid right hook and a stab in the face with a reliable steel sword, Jirel has to win against this creature with what can only be described as The Power of Humanity. it's all literally internal conflict, as a being as ageless and ancient as the stars themselves represents a sort of mental equivalent of universal heat death, and Jirel is overcome by this cold stability, and the only thing that keeps her fighting is emotion. But Moore doesn't just stop with saying love conquers all or some nonsense. Jirel has to face, accept, and project all of the emotions of which any person is capable, from love and kindness to hate and horror and fear and joy.
And interestingly enough, Jirel never quite 'wins' in the conventional sense. She overcomes this adversity and through some sort of typical pulp-style mystical shenanigans rescues Guillaume's soul, but her internal monologue and feelings are not because of any actual devotion to him, but because she feels bad about leaving him in the clutches of the metaphysical and emotional equivalent of a neutron star instead of just killing him herself. And the monster itself, the black God, is described as Moore as being a vital function of the universe, akin to modern interpretations of Galactus in Marvel comics. Instead of a flat-out villain, Galactus (and the Black God) just have goals and ambitions that don't factor humanity's wants and desires into the final equation.
And speaking of morals, Moore never tells us that it was wrong for Guillaume to pay for his transgressions, Jirel just feels it was wrong to extract revenge through eldritch means instead of a sword to his face. And that moral alone keeps right in line with any other famous sword & sorcery story, that achieving one's goals through one's own blood, sweat, and tears is infinitely preferable to using deception, magic or sorcery.
The final verdict on these two stories is that they are well worth tracking down and reading. And it's worth saying: Moore is a criminally under-rated and ignored writer in modern pop culture. We have, in the 30s, a woman who saw what Robert Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, and Fritz Lieber were doing, and decided "Hey, I can do that!" And did. And even inspired Howard to write more women as protagonists as a result. Her Jirel stories are totally kickass (and I'll be finishing off the Ace Books hardcover later in this series), she knows what makes an excellent Sword & Sorcery story tick, and even manages to build a fantastical, horrible world in less than 80 pages total between two stories better than most writers could pull off in 800.
I am in the camp that fantasy in general absolutely needs to be less of a white boys' club, and am a huge proponent of seeking out work from someone who is not just a clone of Martin, Tolkien, Howard, Sanderson, or Brooks, talented as those guys may be. And Catherine Moore's a great pulp writer who deserves more acknowledgement in modern pop culture, and her Jirel of Joiry cycle is some excellent reading.