Have in the Library? No
I have been on a fantasy bend lately, so I’ll start off by saying: if anyone has any recommendations, comment! (Or even better, review!) It’s long been my favorite genre, which I am finding my way back to through childhood favorites. These two novels by author Jim Grimsley however, were totally new to me. An established writer of many works of literary fiction, a playwright, and now a memoirist, this is his first foray into fantasy. I was intrigued. Did he always have these worlds inside his head, or is this an artistic experiment? Either way, I’m glad he veered off his path!
I began with Kirith Kirin. In the heroic tradition of many tales before, it follows the transformation of Jessex, a farmboy, into a powerful wizard destined to change the fortunes of Aeryn, a land of enchanted towers and sacred forests. Along the way, he falls in love with the Red King, Kirith Kirin. If you’ve heard of this book at all, it’s probably because it’s a billed as a “queer fantasy.” While this is initially what brought me to it also, I was pleasantly surprised at how well done it was. Other same-sex relationships are hinted at in the book, and we’re given the feeling that it’s not uncommon. When Kirith Kirin mentions casually that “some do not believe a man should lie with a man or a woman with a woman,” it’s news to Jessex, and the only time homophobia is mentioned in the entire series. Though there’s some angst involved as Jessex and the King grow closer, none of it is about being attracted to the same gender. Wow, gay love without self-loathing— what a novel idea! Grimsley doesn’t think so, and it’s this kind of representation that made the book worthy of it’s “queer fantasy” label for me.
My favorite part of Kirith Kirin was the characters. I enjoyed spending time with them and I was completely caught up in their world. It was a nice change to note how many women were sprinkled throughout the story, such as Kiril Karsten, a warrior and one of the Twice-Named, the tyrannical Queen Athyrn, and the three wise women who become Jessex’s teachers. (And by the way, God is female in Aeryn). Characters who I assumed by default to be men, such as Gaelex, the chamberlain in charge of the King’s camp, pleasantly surprised me when they were revealed as female by the simple insertion of a pronoun. With so many fantasy classics feeling like a boy’s club, I appreciated that Grimsley created multi-dimensional women and a society in which they have equal footing.
Though Kirith Kirin is rife with fantasy tropes, it feels fresh because the focus is not another quest or apocalyptic battle, but the relationship between Jessex and the King, and Jessex’s ascension through the different levels of magic. There are dark powers and fight scenes to be sure, but last minute twists upend the archetypes. By the last page, I was ready for more!
The Ordinary picks up long after Kirith Kirin ends but includes some of the same characters, notably Jessex. It’s more evenly written; Grimsley seems to have settled into the genre. He states in a forward that this is a “companion” but not a sequel; though The Ordinary follows Jessex’s development as a wizard, he’s no longer the main character. Instead, there are two: Jedda, a Hormling linguist from the world of Senal, a scientifically-oriented civilization that is somehow attached to Aeryn, and Malin, Jessex’s niece and a ruler of-sorts in Aeryn. These are two pretty cool women, not only does Grimsley give them power and respect among their people, but they’re also human characters, with doubts and insecurities. And, they fall in love, in scenes proving that once again Grimsley can write queer relationships in a way my younger self would have killed to read.
The Ordinary is a tale of two cultures colliding, and the first half of the book involves Jedda’s impressions of the world you were immersed in throughout the first book. Though Senal is supposed to be a futuristic society where communication takes place through “mentext messages” sent wirelessly to “personal stats,” it actually sounds similar to how we live today (Grimsely wrote this 15 years ago). The Hormlings are so technologically advanced that they are unused to experiencing anything outside of what can be summoned on their flatscreens. This book feels like Grimsley’s taking us on a ride through his own creation, with the Hormlings’ experiences mirroring our own reactions, as if we were suddenly dropped inside Kirith Kirin.
It’s fascinating to see Grimsley, through his character Jedda, describe and dissect the world of Aeryn that he’d previously had you accepting without question. Details such as style of dress, building materials and even plumbing were all just background in Kirith Kirin but are now closely observed by Jedda and her Hormling companions, both expanding your experience of the first book while also subtly undermining it. It added a “meta” aspect to the story that I really enjoyed. The Ordinary plays with the questions: What’s real? What do we believe and why? And who is behind it all? Jessex observes, “What I’ve learned from your world teaches me she might be anything, this god of ours. She might be a being in possession of a science so far beyond your own that it seems like magic to you, and to us.” This issue is never resolved (to my dissatisfaction), but I started to think Grimsley’s giving a nod to himself: the author, the ultimate “creator” of both Senal and Aeryn.
The downside of both books is that they’re too short. Grimsley is a rather reticent writer, but he has such interesting ideas and empathetic characters that I found myself feeling at times that this was just a teaser…I wanted a little bit more of everything! However, take note: Grimsley has since written short stories set in these worlds that can be tracked down in sci-fi collections. These two books may lack the polish of more well-known novels in the genre. But if you want some solid queer/female representation whilst indulging your fantasy urges, definitely pick them up! I was so glad I did!