There once was a lady named Jirel,
Who was one real tough sword-swinging belle,
When foes took her land,
She said “I’ll take a stand,
Even if it means going through hell.”
Welcome to the next installment in my Retro Reviews! If the limerick wasn’t enough of a clue, today’s book features a heroine straight from the lists of fantasy’s most bloody-handed and bloody-minded, and it is a delight to read. Let’s crack on.
What’s it all about?
Jirel of Joiry was a character who first appeared in Weird Tales, a formidable swordswoman and the lady of some mythical part of France, who acted like she walked right out of one of R.E. Howard’s historical fiction. What Jirel normally walked into was some horrific supernatural realm full of sinister eldritch types who, while occasionally fearful of her, mainly wanted to torment her in some way. There were only six short stories written about her and the books are collections of some or all of them. The glib summation of this is “Female Conan”, but that misses some nuances to say the least. It is perhaps closer to the mark to say that this is Eowyn with a bad attitude invading worse acid trips.
How readable is it?
The language is a little dated and some of the descriptive prose gets more than a bit dense, but for the most part this flows free and easy.
Is it any good though?
I’m sorry, did you miss the part where I said “Eowyn with a bad attitude invading worse acid trips”?
Now, I will freely admit that weird violent adventures is a sweet spot of mine, so Jirel of Joiry would have to do some work for me to not enjoy it. I think it’s genuinely really good. The writing’s decent, there’s a few good lines, the plot has a few twists, and the action and worldscapes are what makes this a cut above. It’s also very tightly focused on the adventures, which will mark it down for some but up for those like me, and a lot of the resolutions come about due to Jirel’s sheer willpower rather than the might of her sword, which is nice. This book is like a perfect pub band; it walks on stage, it entertains, then it walks off again and is at the bar before you’re done clapping. It will never rock an arena – although how knows what might have happened with a full length – but nobody cares when they’re watching a great pub band.
How Important is this book?
Jirel of Joiry might be the first female character in fantasy to get star billing as the peep responsible for crushing enemies and seeing them driven before her. We’ll ignore the bit about the lamentations of the women, because if she heard you say that, you might be best advised to end yourself before she can hurt you. If she’s not the actual first, she’s the next best thing. It could also be considered one of the first examples of Howard’s influence on the genre. All in all, this is one of the milestone pieces of Sword & Sorcery and the wider fantasy genre.
What about the author?
Catherine Lucille Moore used her initials but not to conceal her gender from readers, but her identity from her employers, the Fletcher Trust Company in Indianapolis. This does lead though to the mildly amusing anecdote in which fellow author and future husband Henry Kuttner first contacted her through a fan letter without knowing she was a woman. It’s like something out of a Pratchett Dwarven romance. The pair worked together extensively from 1937 to Kuttner’s death in 1958, sometimes under their own names, sometimes under pseudonyms such as Lewis Pagett and Lawrence O’Donnell, making it very difficult to unravel their bibliography. She worked as a screenwriter after Kuttner’s death and was nominated to be the first female Grand Master of the Science Fiction Writers of America, an honour that was withdrawn due to her battle with Alzheimers meaning she wouldn’t have been able to attend the ceremony. It’s difficult to discern anything about her life that might have influenced her writing other than her chronic childhood illnesses which gave her lots of reading time, but I will update this if I find anything.
I am likely to spend a lot of time recommending Jirel of Joiry. It’s a lot of fun and very relevant to the history of the genre. I would also go further and that say if we get endless Conan pastiches, why not resurrect Jirel (rights pending)? I’d love to see some of today’s authors take a go at giving Jirel the full length treatment she deserved. Marie Brennan hit very similar notes in Cold-Forged Flame, which I loved, so something like that’d be great. Or do a comic. Anything for more Jirel.