Paizo has been re-releasing classic pulp fantasy and science fiction titles under its Planet Stories line for a while now, and there’s good reason for bringing these books back into circulation. Black God’s Kiss is one of the first Sword-and-Sorcery series that stars a powerful female protagonist. Jirel of Joiry is not a damsel in a metal bikini who needs a strong man to save her; she’s perfectly capable of saving herself. She’s also perfectly capable of getting herself into situations that she needs to save herself from, which is part of the charm of these stories. She’s fiery, wrathful, often violent, wildly independent, and will not be subject to any man. She’s driven by her emotions, and very pointedly part of an older mindset where strange things are commonplace, and so these stories are vivid and wild and passionate. They’re also very much pulp, in the best of senses.
The volume called Black God’s Kiss is actually a collection of six Jirel stories that ran in Weird Tales in the 30s alongside H. P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith and Robert E. Howard. Included in this collection are “Black God’s Kiss”, from which the collection takes its name, “Black God’s Shadow”, “Jirel Meets Magic”, “The Dark Land”, “Hellsgarde” and the half-Jirel, half-Northwest Smith scifi story “Quest of the Starstone”. The stories can be nominally read like a disjointed novel, since they often refer back to previous events, especially the climactic event of the first story which came to define a lot of Jirel’s inner life, but the stories were written to be read separately. The book does much better read as an anthology. And it’s an exciting anthology at that, even if the last story is not really about Jirel at all.
Jirel is a near-perfect Sword-and-Sorcery hero. Throughout the stories, her first impulse is often to hack at the unknown with her sword and figure out what it was later, or to go into a berserker rage to get out of tight situations. As the stories progress, she does start to think through things more, but it’s because of the situations limiting her ability to hack and slash, not because of any choice to be more thoughtful. Generally, like many of the old heroes, she stays as she is, unchanged for the most part by all the bizarre encounters she has. Her unchanging nature is one of her strengths, however, not a weakness of story or plot. There’s a certain old-fashioned joy in reading stories about someone who doesn’t have much concern for the more delicate human emotions, someone who faces strangeness with the idea that she can take it all down with her bare hands if she needs to. It’s the appeal of Conan the Barbarian, but prettier.
But these stories are also unexpectedly complex. Plotlines continually turn back on themselves — literally, in “Jirel Meets Magic”, when she’s forced to look back along her entire personal timeline and experience it all again. Jirel, as a character, is fundamentally a feminine creature with feminine concerns and sensibilities, even as she raises her sword against the dark. The stories come at ideas of reality and religion and honor in a slightly off-center direction from what one might expect and leave the reader with slightly off-center conclusions because of it. And even in the overblown Lovecraftian-inspired language, there are often snippets that are poetic, even beautiful. None of the complexity was strictly necessary for stories of a barbarian princess in a demon-stalked world, and therefore it raises them slightly above the strict confines of pulp, into something a little more interesting, and more involving to read.
Black God’s Kiss was written almost eighty years ago, but these stories still hold up well to modern reading. Jirel was one of the first truly independent female heroes in the fantasy genre, and it’s gratifying that she isn’t being lost to the past. Her stories are fun, exciting, unfettered by a lot of the angst that modern literature seems to need, but full of her own kind of highly personal angst. They’re full of vivid imagery and strange ideas amounting to a truly original view of reality absolutely full of unsuspecting weirdness. They’re inspiring. And they’re well worth the read.