Jim Grimsley, Kirith Kirin (Meisha Merlin Publishing, 2000)

"In my country many lies are told about me now that I have become rich and famous, and a traveler in the northern part of the world is apt to hear every sort of fabrication about my birth and childhood." So begins Jim Grimsley's Kirith Kirin, a beautifully crafted and strikingly original fantasy novel, narrated by Jessex, the son of a farmer who became a powerful magician and intimate of the King, Kirith Kirin.

Grimsley's setting is the land of Aeryn, populated by Jessex's people, the Jisraegen; the Venladrii, whose skin and eyes are the silver of starlight; the Anynae, who came across the sea long ago, and other races who are remote and not always friendly. It is a land of great age and intrinsic magic, where god still walks the earth and even speaks to favored inhabitants, on occasion. The story, narrated by Jessex from the vantage of age and maturity, is the story of his youth, education, and the conflict between himself as the court wizard to the King, and the Queen's wizard Drudaen Keerfax.

The early part of the book treats of Jessex's childhood as the seventh child of Kinth, a fairly well-to-do farmer, and Sybil, who is something of a witch. It is his mother's mother, Fysyyn, who teaches him the old hymns and the stories of Kirith Kirin, the Prince in Arthen Wood. Kirin is waiting for the Queen, Athryn Ardfalla, to summon him to become King and start the next round of the Cycle, the Law by which the King and Queen alternately rule Aeryn. Lord Keerfax, however, has persuaded the Queen that through his magic she no longer needs to return to Arthen, where all the Twice-Named who live for thousands of years must go periodically to regain their youth. They have informed Kirith Kirin that he need not expect to become King again; in turn, he has exiled them both from Arthen.

One morning Jessex's uncle Sivisal, who had vanished into Arthen many years before, unexpectedly comes to take him to enter the service of Kirith Kirin. Jessex's education as a wizard is conducted by the Diamysaar, the Three Sisters who are ancient powers in the world, now barred from intervening directly in its affairs; he is being trained, they tell him, to assist the wizard Yron. Jessex is sworn to secrecy about his magical education. Needless to say, a crisis comes, and Jessex is faced with the choice of breaking his word to the Sisters or seeing his friends and his Prince go down to ruin.

In the person of Jessex, Grimsley has created a narrator who is both candid and reticent, direct and subtle. This story is actually a memoir of sorts, a personal history colored by the protagonist's memories and biases — although Jessex is a remarkably balanced and generous commentator and his relation of events is matter-of-fact and modest. A great deal of the background comes by inference: Jessex obviously expects his audience to be familiar with the Forty-Thousand Mothers and Fathers, the wars of the wizards, the Tervan and the Orloc, Zaeyn, the land of heroes across the mountains, and the old songs and stories; his manner of relating the events and their context produces an amazingly rich fabric of associations. At the same time, coming to Arthen as a fourteen-year-old boy, there is much he doesn't know. Grimsley's treatment of magic is unique — it is a branch of applied physics, controlled by song — and Jessex's learning of it is as absorbing as the larger adventure of which it is part.

Grimsley's treatment of character is equally deft. An award-winning playwright as well as a novelist, he uses the economy of the stage to build fully-realized people. (This is one of the few fantasy novels in my recent experience that gives ample room for the reader's imagination — places, people, events are sketched quickly and succinctly, with just enough detail to point us in a direction and allow us to fill in the blanks, which brings a deeply satisfying level of engagement with the story.) The relationship between Jessex and Kirith Kirin is a good example: we see very early on the strong attraction between them, but Grimsley's treatment of the depth of their feelings, in keeping with Jessex's reticent manner, is more than a little elliptical which only adds to the power of his portrayal. Dialogue is direct, spare, and rings absolutely true, particularly to anyone who shares any part of the author's background in rural North Carolina — it is the speech of those who live close to the land, loaded with an austere poetry of its own. Grimsley's prose is lean and strong, reinforcing the understated quality of his treatment.

In Kirith Kirin, Jim Grimsley has created a refreshingly original novel that is at once an absorbing adventure, a unique coming-of-age story, and a bittersweet romance, done with great economy and elegance.

[Robert Tilendis]