C. L. Moore: Black God’s Kiss

I didn’t really discover pulp fantasy until a couple of years ago.  Fantasy fiction these days tends to be epic fantasy or urban fantasy.  Epic fantasy is where heroes save the world from Great Evil, preferably over the course of three or more books; as you might have guessed, Tolkien is the unwitting root of it.  Urban fantasy is magical realism that gets shelved in the genre section instead of the literature section.  Pulp fantasy, on the other hand, is what most fantasy was until the 70’s or so.  The archetypal pulp fantasy hero is Conan – the Conan of Robert E. Howard’s books of the 1930’s, not the movie.  He isn’t saving the world; he’s just looking after his own hide, spending most of his time in search of loot or wenches.

Paizo Publishing, best known for formerly publishing the Dungeons & Dragons magazines Dungeon and – wait for it – Dragon, has started publishing old pulp fantasy and science fiction books under their Planet Stories imprint.  C. L. Moore looked like an interesting place to start exploring, given her status as the first woman pulp fantasist of note.

Black God’s Kiss collects her six Jirel of Joiry stories, featuring an impetuous, passionate, ass-kicking heroine in medieval France.  They were plenty of fun in a pulp fantasy way.  Were they special because of the gender of the author?  I dunno.  Jirel is definitely a woman; she goes around kicking butt, but she also has men issues.  If these stories were written by a man about a woman hero, would I be rolling my eyes at how clichéd she was?  Maybe.  I’ve read romance novels written by women and had the same reaction, but if they keep writing characters like that then I guess there’s something to it.  I have to admit that nothing jumped out at me as being something I would never see from a male author, but my reaction might have been different in the 1930’s, when the alternatives to Jirel were Conan and Cthulhu.

The writing was enjoyable – as usual with pulp, it’s long on description and atmosphere and action and kind of short on character development – but didn’t really grab me beyond that, not that I expected it to; I read pulp for the description and atmosphere and action.  I have to admit that my interest perked up the most when I got to the last story and Moore’s regular science-fiction hero, Northwest Smith, time-traveled back to 16th century France from his usual haunt on Mars where he had been passing the time knocking back Martian cocktails with his Venusian sidekick.  But maybe that’s just because I’m a guy.

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