Jim Grimsley,
Kirith Kirin
(Meisha Merlin, 2000)

Jim Grimsley, a gay mainstream southern novelist, playwright and professor of writing, has produced his first genre novel -- an epic fantasy set in an invented world of multi-cultural pre-industrial civilizations lovingly depicted and carefully conceived as the appendices and glossary devoted to this imagined land's history, calendar, magic-system and language can attest. The story itself is narrated as a memoir by the most powerful mage in the realm (nee Jessex) recalling the events in his formative years that made him become the unique individual that he is.

The life and future of young sheepherder Jessex is changed forever because of the oppression he, his family and his people suffer under the rule of the Blue Queen Athryn Ardfella, who refused to yield her throne to the Red King, the eponymous Kirith Kirin, as tradition and law require, and who has allied herself with an evil wizard, Drudaen Keerfax. Kirith Kirin and his followers, staying in the forest of Arthen, a place where the queen cannot go because of its powerful protective magic, plan to remedy the situation.

In response to a prophecy, Kirith Kirin's seer, Mordwen, sends for protagonist Jessex to tend the lamps at the shrine in the forest. Son and grandson of witches, with more talents than were at first apparent, Jessex is spirited away by a trio of weird sisters -- the fates, as it were -- to a magical idyllic lakeside region where they teach him magic and fighting skills in a sort of time warp that enables him to train and keep up with his duties at the shrine simultaneously without undue fatigue. When Jessex learns that Julassa, a sorceress allied with the queen, has killed his family and captured his mother, this tragedy is ameliorated somewhat by the love Kirith Kirin has come to feel for him -- an attraction that is mutual and tolerated in their culture.

Constrained by the sisters not to use his magic outside their sorcerous space/time bubble until they determine when it is the appropriate time, Jessex masters esoteric skills rapidly and readily (and resisting Druaden's enticements) -- until Julassa's powerful spells threaten to wipe out Kirith Kirin and his armies in battle. Jessex feels compelled by this crisis to use his learning despite the rules against it and discovers that his arcane arts are strong enough to kill Julassa, a momentous event that the sisters concede is part of their disciple's development while they wait for a genuinely major-league wizard, Yron, to arrive. Soon, as the war for liberation heats up, Jessex discovers who he really is in a truly delicious ironic plot development, his role in the struggle against the evil that overshadows the land turning out to be more crucial than he could ever have imagined.

Jim Grimsley, through the narrative voice of Jessex, enables the reader to experience an astonishingly detailed, vivid fantasy world filled with fully realized characters (including many strong women in gender-bending roles), and one of the most tender and heart-warming positive portrayals of a gay male relationship (Jessex with Kirith Kirin, of course) to be found in a genre novel. All the character interactions are complex and interesting, especially those of the major antagonists, Queen Athryn and Wizard Drudaen -- with the heroes and with each other, leading to an unexpected, surprising and satisfying denouement. (No endless series here!) This story is also blessed with remarkable descriptions of how the quantum-like magic system of this world works and how it could actually feel to be learning about and then to be wielding super-human powers of control over the body and forces of energy through a variety of methods including huge arcanely constructed towers that act as monumental channels for directing occult emanations. Nor does the author gloss over the tragic consequences of war and its attendant destruction of life, property and the environment. Kirith Kirin, a uniquely elegant and creative fantasy saga, dense and intricate in text, complete in one volume, is highly recommended to open-minded readers ready and willing to truly lose themselves in a wondrous, fantastic other world.

[ by Amy Harlib ]



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