Wednesday, January 15, 2014
Wednesday Review: Jirel of Joiry
This book interested me because it's classic pulp from the 30s and features an early version of a sword-wielding heroine. It's a collection of half a dozen short stories set in a (very) pseudo-historical France sometime after the fall of Rome. One story seems to identify the time as 1500AD but while that fits with some references (arbalests), it makes no sense with others. That hardly matters of course but it irked me a bit as the setting could have easily been non-specific as to time and place. I am curmudgeonly about such things.
The first story was fascinating because almost from the start there seemed really no reason for Joiry (as I shall call her) to be a warrior at all. It would have worked as well, indeed probably better, had she been utterly lacking skill at arms. Throughout we're reminded that Joiry is a fearsome warrior but she does nothing that's at all plot-relevant that exhibits her skill at arms. The plot can be summarised thus: Joiry's castle is captured by the (rather ruggedly handsome) villain. The imprisoned Joiry escapes and with the aid of a priest descends to what she imagines is hell in search of a weapon to use against the dastard who has captured her. Up to this point the story's rather trite and sometimes very unconvincing (even the most dim-witted Bond villain would not imprison someone still wearing armour). But what may be hell is suitably otherwordly and the nature of the weapon she uncovers is quite inspired. What's even better is that there's a bit of a twist at the end (which I suspect may enrage some readers but I found rather amusing and rather added to the strength of the story). Despite Joiry's unnecessary and probably counterproductive 'warrior-woman' status and a dodgy start, this ends up being really good. It should be noted though that action takes a distant second place to description, albeit some of the description is great.
However the second story, a direct sequel to the first, reuses a good deal of the ideas of the first (and actually whole chunks of text too). It was a lot harder to get into for this reason. It turns out okay although the mental/spiritual nature of much of the conflict rather underlines the fact it's not really necessary for Joiry to have been a warrior.
Jirel Meets Magic, the third story, does have Joiry in some (rather well done) combat at the start. Again though, the main thrust of the story doesn't actually demand a warrior woman. It's probably the best story in the book though and has lots of great scenes. I liked it a lot.
The fourth story underline the spiritual nature of the real conflicts and although one of the weaker tales is miles better than the fifth story which brings in an overtly science-fiction slant, and is much the weaker for it. Hellsgarde though is a return to form and a fitting finale
All the stories have this in common: the battles are more those of the will than of the flesh. For me Jirel as a mail-clad, sword-wielding warrior actually detracts from the real strengths of both the book and the character. Without the sword she could be a true heroine. With it she is diminished, though the book's well worth a read anyway as it has moments of pure class and is generally satisfying.