In 2000, the same year Meisha Merlin published Grimsley’s Kirith Kirin, they also published the anthology containing my first-ever pro short fiction sale. In another universe, Meisha Merlin would have survived and possibly published my debut novel (whichever one that turned out to be.) MM had a rep for taking on daring, quirky books that the larger imprints might have shied from.
This is the Meisha Merlin cover.
This is a link to the ‘newest’ version, available on Amazon here. (That cover sucks, IMO – it’s too obviously inspired by one of the more famous Magician Tarot cards, and the image doesn’t even match the main character’s description.)
It’s hard to believe that in 1999 – 2000, the Male/Male romance genre was still largely limited to explicit romps in fan fiction, and generally tame encounters in mainstream SFF.
There were a few erotic romance houses publishing explicit M/M stories.
In mainstream commercial SFF there were authors like Diane Duane, Tanya Huff, Mercedes Lackey, Storm Constantine, Tanith Lee, Melissa Scott, and Lynn Flewelling. Authors with obvious LGBTQ characters and themes in their work, but the love scenes were rarely explicit (even though M/F encounters in similar books were often shown in more detail.)
Kirith Kirin has been a whispered hallmark among LGBTQ fantasy readers for years, subject of rumors claiming its open M/M content kept it from a Big Six publication.
I think there were other reasons.
I’d had the chance to speed-read a friend’s copy at a convention a few years back. That is no way to read a simple book, let alone one as densely-written as this. I remember impressions of the story: jeweled prose, intense metaphysical battles, a typical Humble Urchin Becomes A Great Power trope, and a tale alternately enthralling and frustrating.
Mostly, I remember being territorially infuriated because some of my decades-old worldbuilding seemed too close to Grimsley’s, and that skewed my appreciation of the book.
Recently, I found a copy of the old Meisha Merlin edition and spent a week reading it. (Thanks, Neichan!)
I’m not so territorial now, due to a second inoculation of parallel development from N.K. Jemison’s Hundred Thousand Kingdoms.
Kirith Kirin still enthralls and frustrates me.
First off, Jim Grimsley is one ballsy sonofabitch. Most literary fiction writers who take on science fiction and fantasy fail on at least a couple of levels. They don’t know the tropes, so they reinvent the wheel. Their worldbuilding tends to have holes the size of Texas. Often, they flat-out tell boring stories dressed up in pretty MFA-level prose. When called on their failings, they often retreat to the ivory tower.
Grimsley seems to have read the SFF classics. He jumps right in with them, fearlessly.
With Kirith Kirin, Grimsley aims for and reaches the antique, almost ceremonial prose styles popular in pre 1980’s epic/heroic fantasy. Readers of Tolkien, Joy Chant, and Andre Norton can handle this style. Grimsley’s world is vividly written, a landscape of wonders and horrors, vast magics, and tender moments. But I suspect it may not be easily read by the average M/M fantasy romance reader of today; pay heed to the one-star reviews on Amazon and Goodreads, to see if this is a book you might love or hate.
The cultures are distinct and interesting, many of them reaching a sane normality for LGBTQ relationships: M/M and F/F are as accepted as M/F. The magic system is intricate as anything I’ve seen in the big imprints. Naming conventions veer between Celtic and Romanesque, with complexities that stretch even my obsession with fantasy linguistics. The worldbuilding, history, and mythology are immense. Do not skip the appendix; it’s there for a damn good reason and it will help your brain stay in your skull while reading this book.
(I’d go so far to guess that readers who liked Diane Duane’s ‘Middle Kingdoms’ fantasy series will like this one.)
Grimsley’s main characters are less delineated than they could be. The immortal Kirith Kirin is a dichotomy of youthful appearance and mien, and incredible age; an ultimately tragic figure whose life will herald irrevocable change in his world. Kind readers might call him diffident and remote, alternating with downright clingy. Many readers (including me at various points in the book) will call him cardboard.
His love interest, the wizard-apprentice Jessex (in a wonderful inversion of most new fantasy writers’ urges) isn’t even fully physically described until nearly the end of the book. Even so, Jessex is a far more compelling character.
There’s a slightly unsettling aura of underage sex in this book, probably one of the reasons the bigger imprints may have passed on it (if Grimsley even approached them.) Kirith Kirin is thousands of years old. Jessex is not yet fifteen when he escapes certain death and finds destiny in the enchanted forest of Arthen. He’s not even sixteen (his legal age in his world) when he becomes Kirith Kirin’s lover. Even so, in his first-person narrative, Jessex makes his reasons clear and understandable, and that it is he who makes the first call. Mainstream houses now might not quail at it, but most erotic romance houses still zealously adhere to the 18-age-of-consent doctrine, no matter how absurd it might be within the context of specific books.
However, there’s little call for caution with this book. The sex is just as delicately, discreetly shown as any similar encounter from the mainstream authors listed above. It’s very tender, and I found the romance sweet enough to be believable from these two characters. The aforementioned M/M romance reader, accustomed to more graphic fare, may really hate this.
Jessex himself is similar to other high-powered characters I’ve read in the genre: sometimes less of a well-rounded person, and more of a nuclear deterrent sort of walking weapon. Like Kvothe from Patrick Rothfuss, or Michael Scott Rohan’s amnesiac mastersmith in the ‘Winter of the World’ trilogy, Jessex’s magical training and battles can seem too pat, too perfect, making him almost a Gary Stu proxy for the author.
The end of the ultimate bad guy is unexpected and perfectly in character for himself and Jessex, another great inversion on the usual magical duel.
On the whole, even given my frustration with it, I think I may love this book. Not only for itself, but for what Grimsley achieved with it.
In the two sequels, published by Tor later that decade, he makes a choice not many other fantasy authors dare. The pre-industrial fantasy world of Kirith Kirin shifts into science fiction and space opera, as the inhabitants discover and deal with other worlds and civilizations. I haven’t read them yet, but I plan to now.
After all, this is more or less what I want to do with my Lonhra Sequence stories.
Added 12-04-2015: on behalf of all good self-published authors, I’d like to thank every single one of the people who read this review and then purchased the ebook or the print version of Kirith Kirin through Amazon. I do genuinely love this book, and I hated to see it languish in the years immediately after Grimsley republished it. If this review had even a small part in your decision to buy, I’m happy.
Added 04-25-2016: on behalf of the author, and after reading some of the more recent Amazon reviews, I have to step in and say firmly, “This book is not for everyone.”
I’ll even be callous (my blog, my rules): if you have a short attention span, an underdeveloped vocabulary, and you cannot visualize or even tolerate long descriptive passages, this book is probably not for you. You will hate it. If Tolkien makes you snooze, this book will put you into a coma. If you like hot-n-heavy M/M contemporary cowboy biker erotic romance with two sex scenes per chapter, or M/M alpha/omega mpreg werewolf-shapeshifter-vampire erotic romance, this is definitely not a book to wank by. Comprende?