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The Ordinary
Jim Grimsley
Tor, 400 pages

The Ordinary
Jim Grimsley
Jim Grimsley is the author of Comfort & Joy, published in 1999; Winter Birds, a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award and winner of the Sue Kaufman Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters; Dream Boy, nominated for the Lambda Award for fiction and winner of the GLBTF Book Award for Fiction from the ALA; and My Drowning, a Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Writers Award winner. He is also a playwright and the author of Mr. Universe and Other Plays. He lives in Atlanta.

Jim Grimsley Website
ISFDB Bibliography

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Charlene Brusso

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There are plenty of so-called "literary" writers from the mainstream world who are in truth fantasy writers, freely walking the less-traveled lands of genre to find new ways to frame their stories and ask questions about identity, faith, and desire. Though not as well known as some, Jim Grimsley's second genre novel shows he is definitely one of the best; complex as Gene Wolfe, more thorough than Ursula K. Le Guin. Readers looking for intricately detailed, vividly imagined, and above all unique, non-Earth cultures will be right at home here.

The Ordinary shares its setting -- if not its time frame -- with Grimsley's Lambda Award-winning Kirith Kirin. This is the future of the planet Aeryn, settled generations ago by colonists from Earth. Those original settlers, the Hormling, have grown into a technologically advanced race with a rigid caste structure which supports a tiny upper class, as well as a distant interstellar war, on the backs of the lower classes. Now the Hormlings need more land and more resources to support their expanding society, and the easiest place to get both is through the mysterious Twil Gate, a massive arch of unknown origins sitting smack in the middle of the ocean. The Gate opens onto the world of Irion, home to the quaintly backward Erejhen, who have little interest in technology. The heart of their seemingly primitive society is a low-key religion devoted to the god Irion, about whom the Hormling leaders know little and care even less. This is a society which has traded its intellectual curiosity for a caste system which only values power and money.

Young translator Jedda Martele, a mid-caste Hormling and member of a Senal diplomatic mission to Irion, finds strange comfort in the homespun lifestyle of the Erejhen. Then a Hormling naval force charges through the Twil Gate, attempting to take strategic Irion ports, and the diplomat's true mission is revealed: they are meant to claim power and act as negotiators between the Hormling and Erejhen governments.

Unfortunately for the Hormling fleet, they attack, only to be repelled by Erejhen magic. Irion announces they will close the Twil Gate, allowing a short time for those Hormlings who work in trade in Irion to choose whether they will return or stay -- and Jedda herself receives a surprising request from Irion's powers-to-be, who want her to stay. With little awaiting her at home, and the blessing of her former mentor who came long ago to stay in Irion, Jedda travels to meet those who oversee the land of Irion, including the legendary wizard called Irion, the patron for whom the land is named.

Working with shifting timelines and points of view, Grimsley skillfully reveals Jedda's destiny, entwined with the history of Irion -- both the man and the land. In the end, the choices offered to her will seal the fate of Erejhen and Hormling society. Both cultures are finely textured, drawn with an impressive clockwork intricacy; although that intricacy dispels the story's mystery and tension, at times offering more travelogue than tale, the world itself, and its characters, never fail to fascinate.

What sets Grimsley so clearly apart from other literary writers who mine fantasy and science fiction tropes is his clear respect for the genre. He doesn't scrimp on world-building, and never lets his characters take the easy way out to prove a thematic point. The Ordinary takes on complex questions of power and faith, and doesn't flinch from examining them from all the angles.

Copyright © 2004 Charlene Brusso

Charlene's sixth grade teacher told her she would burn her eyes out before she was 30 if she kept reading and writing so much. Fortunately he was wrong. Her work has also appeared in Aboriginal SF, Amazing Stories, Dark Regions, MZB's Fantasy Magazine, and other genre magazines.


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