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The Lady of Joiry is the most fearsome warrior of her time: brave, fearless, and willing to die for her men - or to descend into the depths of hell to find a fitting vengeance for anyone who dares try to overthrow her city.
On the other side of time and space, Northwest Smith is a space cowboy. Travelling between the cultures of the three main planets (Earth, Mars and Venus) he treads a line just the wrong side of the law, accepting any challenge that's likely to pay for his next bottle of whisky.
I'm slowly working my way through the Masterworks series - both sci-fi and fantasy - produced by Orion for the new millennium (so yes, I'm a bit behind!). Number 37 (although I'm not sure the numbering really means much) is a little bit different from the volumes I've read so far, being a series of short stories written by a woman, in the 1930s, and originally published in magazine format.
There are two sets of stories followed here, and two completely unrelated characters. The first, and shorter, collection is closer to classic fantasy: female warrior complete with plate armour and sword, fighting to protect her city from all invaders. However, with a portal to hell in the castle dungeons this becomes something more than just a medieval battle tale!
While enjoying these stories, I wasn't desperately impressed for some reason. I think at the heart of it is the fantasy setting without the benefit of a novel's-worth of development and attachment. Told in little slivers of story, we get snapshots of a few adventures, but it's only through a few throwaway statements through the whole batch of stories that really any of the setting is revealed - and that's to the detriment of the imagination required, in my opinion.
I was also somewhat underwhelmed by the portrayal of female characters - well, character, really! Despite being written by a woman I think the prevailing view of the times of the fairer gender is still showing through: in other words, beneath that plate mail armour, I think the Lady of Joiry was still a bit on the soppy side for my liking!
In terms of plot, however, I won't fault these stories: the scope of imagination was quite unlike anything I've read more recently - perhaps throwing this set of tales more into the Edgar Allen Poe-ish horror genre than what a modern audience usually thinks of as fantasy.
And on the theme of genre, should a set of stories set on Mars be in the fantasy masterworks series?! Well yes actually, I think they should! There's no real sci-fi going on here, no high technology; rather a set of adventures that could almost have easily been set in exotic Constantinople or some lost world buried deep with the Himalayas!
I found the character of Northwest Smith easier to get on with than Jirrel. Sure, you could argue that he's a bit of a stereotype: rough, tough and with questionable morals - still, definitely morals! - but within the settings of the tales here the simple yet with hinted at depths character fits perfectly, allowing the plot to be the focus of the few short pages the original magazine publication would have allowed.
As the stories progress you do get the sense that NW Smith is a magnet for trouble. He encounters various alien species, very few all that friendly, and is usually hiding out from the authorities. If I had any complaint it would be that Ms Moore is overly-fond of the vampire as monster, although she does get a few variations on the theme going.
Overall, this second set of tales really carried my interest and imagination along with them. The style reminds me of old movies, adventure tales (for boys, I suppose!) where shades of grey didn't get too much in the way of 'good' guy versus baddy. The descriptions of Mars, Venus and even the futuristic Earth are brief but definitely more rounded than the world that contains Joiry. Further, Moore throws in the most casual of statements that explain the habitation of all three world by differing kinds of humans, and makes it all seem quite believable - over the course of the tales I think a pretty good picture of this universe setting is put across.
So do I recommend the book? Yes! I may have found the Jirrel tales a little stilted, but the rollicking adventures of that space cowboy more than made up for it. Further, it was just fascinating to see how writing styles, especially within-genre (e.g. sci-fi today is much more tech-driven and 'operatic' rather than all-out adventure), have changed over the past - gulp! - 75 years!! With than timescale in mind, the contents here have aged remarkably well, with the few slightly strange elements fitting absolutely perfectly with the genre.
Paperback: 448 pages (Gollancz 2002)
First published in magazine 'Weird Tales' in the 1930s