BOOK REVIEW: “BLACK GOD’S KISS” By C.L. Moore

First published in the pages of Weird Tales in 1934, C.L. Moore’s Jirel of Joiry is the first significant female sword and sorcery protagonist and one of the most exciting and evocative characters the genre has ever known. Published alongside seminal works by H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard, the six classic fantasy tales included in this volume easily stand the test of time and often overshadow the storytelling power and emotional impact of stories by Moore’s more famous contemporaries. A seminal work from one of fantasy’s most important authors, Black God’s Kiss is an essential addition to any fantasy library.

I’m continuing my journey down the rabbit hole of “sword & sorcery” fantasy from the early 20th century. While mostly dominated by Conan the Barbarian, I picked up Black God’s Kiss on recommendation from Reddit  listing it as a “must read”. Is it a must for fans of the genre? Absolutely.

paizo_black_gods_kissJirel of Joiry is a fantastic protagonist. Unlike most of the heroes (anti-heroes?) of this grim subgenre, she is well rounded. She’s a fierce warrior, but she displays a variety of emotions the basic trio of rage, arrogance, and lust that her male peers default to. Questioning her own motives and decisions, as well as her own capabilities make her a flawed and relatable heroine. She’s larger-than-life, but far more humanized and less of a “force of nature” than Conan, Kull, or any of the Burroughs archetypes.

Set in a fictionalized version of France, Moore’s writing is grounded in a familiar geography. Jirel’s adventures take her to fantastical lands and alternate dimensions, but she always returns home to her fortress tower.This re-occurring thematic element along with the French setting adds a tangible, central anchor to some otherwise wild stories. It also plays well with the romantic elements that wind through most of the stories.

The tales are fairly consistent, with Jirel facing off against different antagonists and risking her life for conquest, honor, and revenge. Moore’s prose is dense, as was the style of the time, and the word repetition wavers between poetic and redundant. These are not breezy reads. People in the 1930’s clearly read at a higher grade level.

“Quest Of The Starstone” (the 6th and final installment in the book) is the only entry I really didn’t care for. It focuses on Northwest Smith, another of Moore’s heroic creations, as the protagonist and Jirel is a supporting character. It’s what they refer to as a “cross-over” in the comic book industry, and just felt a bit trite, since Moore dis-empowered Jirel to give one of her other characters the limelight. This was a collaboration with Henry Kuttner, and another author’s influence in the mix surely had an impact as well.

Black God’s Kiss gets a strong recommendation for fantasy fans. Jirel is a great character, and was clearly the foundation for numerous other famous female warriors like Red Sonja and Brienne of Tarth. It’s also convenient to have the complete collection of her adventures in one book, since the “sword & sorcery” era is notorious for numerous incomplete collections which can leave a reader wanting.

If you’re searching for some intense fantasy action with a strong female protagonist, check this one out!

WHAT I LIKED:

  • Likeable, flawed heroine with more depth than is usual for her genre
  • Beautiful, complex, prose
  • Stories of (mostly) consistent quality

WHAT I DIDN’T LIKE:

  • Some of that beautiful prose had weird stylistic/editorial choices
  • The last story in the book is a little weak
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