Jim Grimsley is a successful playwright and novelist who has produced, in Kirith Kirin, a singular work of fantasy. The story revolves around Jessex, a boy of fourteen when the story opens, who narrates the tale of his entry into the service of Kirith Kirin, the Prince who lives in Arthen Forest, awaiting the call from the Queen, Athryn Ardfalla, to fulfill the next round of the Cycle and succeed her as King. The call is somewhat more than 100 years overdue, because the Queen’s wizard, Drudaen Keerfax, has convinced her that she can maintain her youth and vitality without returning to Arthen, and so remain in power forever. Kirith Kirin has in turn exiled Drudaen and Athryn from Arthen.
Then Jessex’ long-lost uncle Sivisal comes to bring him into Arthen on the basis of a dream and a prophecy. During his time as kyyvi (the acolyte who sings the morning and evening prayers in the ceremony of the lamps), Jessex is also being taught, secretly, by the Diamysaar, the Three Sisters who are ancient powers in the world and have bestowed the second name on the Twice-Named, who are, if not immortal, extremely long-lived. Jessex’s education, he is told, is being undertaken to prepare him to be assistant for a powerful wizard, Yron, who will come to free the world from Keerfax and his Shadow; under no circumstances must he discuss it outside of the place where he is being taught, nor may he use magic except during his lessons. The story of Jessex’s education is fascinating because Grimsley has a unique view of magic and its workings, and Jessex is a personable and very intelligent, if somewhat reticent, narrator. Needless to say, circumstances force Jessex to break his promise to the Sisters; since this happens halfway through the book, it really gives nothing away to say that, contrary to his expectations, Jessex is neither killed nor taken away from the world. With the gift of a cloak woven and sewn by the Sisters, Jessex becomes Kirith Kirin’s wizard and, very soon, his lover. Since this is a work of fantasy, eventual victory is assured, but there are some surprising plot developments.
This is not a book for those who want a nice clean exposition that lays everything out right up front. Jessex, as narrator, is quite consciously telling a history to an audience who will be familiar with most of the background. He does explain what needs to be explained as he tells the narrative, but the picture of the lives of the Jisraegen (Jessex’ people) and the context of their world unfold slowly – their history, for example, which is a real, living tradition for them, is revealed in a series of asides that flesh out events that are being related. Jessex assumes that his audience knows who and what the Nivri and Finru are, and who the Orloc and Tervan and Venladrii are, and we learn enough by inference to satisfy. (Grimsley is not one, in this book at least, to clutter things up with useless detail. Fortunately for those whose curiosity burns, he does publish a glossary as one of the appendices.)
As a narrator, Jessex is very matter-of fact, and sometimes almost laconic. While there is no doubt that Jessex and Kirith Kirin love each other deeply and passionately, in the best romantic tradition, Jessex’ understatement and humor only make it less graphic and more real; likewise his references to the development of his powers as a wizard, which are again very straightforward and unapologetic. Not only is it refreshing to have a story told with this combination of circumspection and frankness, it also serves to build Jessex as a real person.
Music plays a huge role in this book: singing is how one makes magic, singing is how one worships YY-Mother, the Jisraegen god, music is how the Jisraegen entertain themselves in the evenings. Do not, however, expect Tolkien-style “The Road goes ever on” lyrics – songs are rendered freely, in verse forms that make me believe that Grimsley may also be a very talented poet. And speech is very direct, almost jarringly so in the beginning, until the reader begins to understand that these people are very direct and sometimes almost terse, and that the dialogue fits the flow of the narrative beautifully.
Grimsley is a talented writer, and this is a beautifully crafted book. Highly recommended.
(Meisha Merlin Publishing Ltd., 2000)