Why not start out with some of the most interesting experiences with genre fiction I’ve had lately, let alone LGBT+ fiction.
Two books by Jim Grimsley, a prolific novelist and playwright
He was writing gay fiction for decades before turning to fantasy with Kirith Kirin. I had read his novel Dream Boys before his SFF stuff, and it was a lush, emotive, compelling and really fucking oddly surreal read. I still don’t know what to make of it, except maybe that it’s a novel that speaks of an experience of being queer entirely outside of my own, and what could I have to make of it?.
Kirith Kirin gave me a similar impression in many aspects. I read it at the end of 2015, so my memories are hazier now. It’s a very classic epic fantasy premise – a humble farm boy, Jessex, joins his uncle in the army of Kirith Kirin, a dethroned King fighting to regain his rightful kingdom. Jessex finds himself at the centre of an old prophecy, learns magic, fights for Kirith Kirin – and falls in love with him.
It’s the relationship between Jessex and Kirith that drives the novel
I love epic fantasy despite all the problems in the genre, and this novel gave me such a classic, fantastical premise – of the prophesised hero and the legendary King fighting to restore peace and the natural order – and then made it unapologetically gay, so much so that normal high fantasy romance trappings – like epic declarations of soulmate bondings in ancient sacred magical shrines with mystical ceremonies and all that – applied to a same-sex couple seemed indulgent.
It was fantastic. When Jessex and Kirith become a couple, there is still much more to their story to be told and Grimsley keeps it interesting, something definitely hard in any romance writing. They became one of my favourite types of literary couples, the kind where after they get together the story’s plot and conflict is faced by them together as a team.
(I will say though, YMMV regarding the age gap between Jessex and Kirith. It’s magic immortal-but-looks-young-and-sexy King and farm boy prophesised hero, and often those age gaps feel negligible, but Jessex is also firmly a teenager, barely ‘of age’ and this is a point that’s made. It never, ever feels like anything less than a relationship of equals. But, you know. That’s there, it certainly didn’t serve much of a purpose)
The supporting cast were also very enjoyable, appealing characters, with Grimsley alluding to a rich mythology and history with each of Kirith’s companions. There was a mix of fierce leaders with some frankly adorable character interactions!.
The worldbuilding was utterly incredible.
I appreciated the character-driven story, but I don’t even think I can put into words what I think of the worldbuilding in this novel. It wasn’t a terribly long book, but he just about fit in as lush a fantasy world as I’ve seen in the staples of epic fantasy. Truly the only thing stopping it from being up there with A Song of Ice and Fire’s Westeros or The Wheel of Time’s “Randland” is that it’s just one book. The prose was just gorgeous, the descriptive passages are so detailed and conjure a genuinely beautiful fantasy world. The thought put into the magic and the many races and kingdoms in this world, just for the one book, is incredible.
And my god, the linguistics. For me, fantasy languages are tricky things. Frankly, Tolkien destroyed all competition for hundreds of years to come. He helped create the modern fantasy genre with his books that were just vessels for his many languages. So now, most fantasy that gets too enthusiastic about their made-up words and terms, for me, just seems like a lot of superfluous effort – often because compared to Tolkien, none of it does anything for the story whatsoever. Just a bunch of clever kids showing off how clever they are. Not in Kirith Kirin though. The language is so detailed and thought out and serves a purpose, in constructing the society, the religion, and the magic. Oh the magic.
Sadly, the execution failed it from becoming a genuine favourite.
Because, while the magic system was seriously one of the most impressive magic systems, for how detailed and developed it was, and also how alive it felt, it was also delivered through a lot of info dumps. In the grand epic magical war, the descriptions of the magic could drag it down. Battle scenes, although their depiction of magic was well written, became dry rather than exciting, and I was simply skimming to get to the next scenes between Jessex and his comrades.
Now, I just finished its sequel-of-sorts, The Ordinary.
Grimsley takes the fantasy world of Kirith Kirin, several thousand years in the future, and changes everything.
The premise of The Ordinary is the Hormling, in a futuristic, spacefaring society caught in a war with robots, discovered a gate through space and time to a technologically backwards world and have been exploring this world for decades now. A delegation is sent to meet with this world’s leader, including the linguist and trader Jedda Martele – who gets caught up in this world as magic and technology clash.
This world of course is that of Kirith Kirin’s, thousands of years after.
The plot that unfolds is very interesting. The sci-fi society of Jedda and other characters isn’t as deeply explored as the world in Kirith Kirin, but still interesting. It was a society of conformity and habit; all citizens were linked and recorded, mentally, through technology, and as people who grew up in space they were constantly terrified and unnerved by the wide open fantasy world they were set to explore. Jedda explores this world through the eyes of a linguist – a very believable one, her narration always pays attention to shifting dialects and etymology – and the first half of the novel is very much the exciting build up to a war between civilisations
It was a fascinating experiment.
I think well worth a read for anyone who likes both sci-fi and fantasy. It pits magic and technology against each other, but on equal footing. The fact that I got excited and a little emotional when places and people from Kirith Kirin speaks of how much that novel really did make an impact on me – that when characters mentioned the Mother Goddess, didn’t quite name her, memories came flooding back and oh my gosh yes they’re talking about the YY-Mother! It was also a fascinating look at a fantasy world that evolves and changes rather than stagnates through the era, manifesting in the linguistics and demonstrating how languages themselves evolve, and what effect that has on cultures.
It features probably one of the most lovely, affecting F/F romances I’ve read.
The word that comes to mind for me is lush. The relationship between Jedda and Malin, Jessex’s niece and another powerful magician, was intriguing from the start, and only got more emotionally affecting as the twists of the plot were revealed. The way prophecy and time itself brought them together was gorgeous, as was the development of their relationship. The heat and magnetism of attraction appeared immediately, but Grimsley also took his time to show the deeper bond between the two and all its twisting stages of development.
(I was also basically in love with Malin myself. Beautiful, powerful, immortal magician queen meets lively young magician apprentice princess, all in one character. Her life story was just so… gahh hit the right notes, especially having read Kirith Kirin)
Everything queer in this novel made me so happy. What we saw, in various ways, of Jessex and Kirith’s relationship after the events of the first novel was, frankly, gorgeously romantic.
It had its downfalls, though, just like Kirith Kirin.
The drive of its initial plot peters out a little over halfway, with the climax mostly happening off-screen and really abruptly. The bulk of the novel serves as an exploration of the conflict between magic and technology, between atheism and god – especially an exploration of magic. Because oh man does Grimsley love his magic.
This is okay, because so do I, in the end. I love his ideas. I love how important same-sex romance is to his fantasy plots, with destiny and soulmates because yes, queer people need this too.
I’d rate the series an over all 4/5 stars – individually, I’d give Kirith Kirin 3/5 and The Ordinary 4/5.