Originally published in the pulp magazine Weird Tales in the late 1930s, Moore’s five stories featuring beautiful swordswoman Jirel, lady ruler of a feudal fiefdom in medieval France, were as germinal in the development of sword-and-sorcery fantasy as the work of her contemporary, Robert E. Howard. Jirel is a strong and complex character, the first in prose fantasy’s long and honorable list of butt-kicking heroines; tough but not brutal, proud and hot-tempered, but possessing a gentle side, too. Like most people in her time, she’s a loyal daughter of the Church –but she’s not especially religious and wouldn’t make any claims to sainthood! Though she’s a veteran fighter of conventional battles, these stories involve her mostly in adventures of another sort, confrontations with dark sorcery, usually in otherworldly, extra-dimensional realms.
Moore’s prose style here was influenced by Poe and Lovecraft (and she’s fully their equal); her plotting and her creation of vivid fantasy worlds, all significantly different from the others, are highly original, and she excels at evoking a mood of strangeness and menace –Jirel’s approach to Hellsgarde castle is a masterpiece of this sort. Some critics have found fault with Jirel’s having romantic feelings toward her enemy in the first story, Guillaume, considering this a betrayal of feminist orthodoxy; but I think her complex feelings are quite plausible psychologically, and lend the story a depth and tension that it wouldn’t have otherwise.
In the first story, “Black God’s Kiss,” searching for an instrument of vengeance and victory over an invader who’s conquered her domain, Jirel dares to explore a dark tunnel underneath Joiry Castle, that leads to what proves to be a dimensional portal. The sequel, “Black God’s Shadow, finds her undertaking the same path, ut with a very different mission. “Jirel Meets Magic” pits her against a malevolent wizard responsible for the deaths of ten of her men. Sinister sorcery brings her from what everybody expects to be her deathbed into a fantasy world beyond this one in “The Dark Land” –but the move may be from the frying pan to the fire. Finally, in “Hellesgarde,” she goes to seek a small leather casket in an ill-omened castle, demanded as the ransom for some of her soldiers held prisoner by a villainous warlord; but small packeges can contain very potent and dangerous things.
The late Marion Zimmer Bradley dedicated her first Sword and Sorceress anthology to “every girl who grew up wanting to be Jirel.” When all’s said and done, those girls didn’t pick a bad role model!
Note: Jirel (who’s single) remarks in passing at one point that she’s “no stranger to the ways of light loving,” and she can cuss a blue streak when circumstances provoke it. But there are no direct references to sexual activity in the stories, and no directly quoted bad language.
Author: C. L. Moore
Publisher: Ace Books, available through Amazon, only as a printed book at this time.
A version of this review previously appeared on Goodreads.