Jim Grimsley, an author more known for literary fiction (Boulevard, Dream Boy) than speculative (Kirith Kirin) offers an interesting tale of science fantasy with his latest book, The Ordinary (Tor Books, May 2004). Jedda Martele is a linguist from the technologically advanced world of Senal, a crowded dystopia home to the Hormlings, thirty billion inhabitants. A mysterious gate links their world to Irion, a pseudo-medieval age land. A number of ethnicities and races dwell in Irion but the most notable people claim to work magic. After years of study and trade with the locals, Jedda has become an expert on Irion languages and, as the novel opens, she is part of a seemingly diplomatic contingent from Senal to meet with Malin, the fabled ruler of Irion.
Jedda quickly discovers though that the mission actually is a plot to drive the two realms to war; the oligarchs from Senal are confident that advanced technology can easily conquer and colonize "backwards" Irion, which has much-needed resources. Malin's magic devastates the invading armada and except for a handful of individuals—including Jedda at the ruler's request—the Hormlings are exiled. Jedda remains unsure if she was left behind as a guest or prisoner and soon finds herself integral in the plans of the wizards of Irion.
Often, speculative fiction is plot-driven rather than character-driven literary fiction. The Ordinary is no exception. Jedda, while exceedingly likeable, is a passive player through most of the novel, open to new experiences but little inclined to involve herself. This lends the book a casual flow that sometimes plods along waiting for action. Grimsley, like an overzealous tour guide, further slows the story with too much detail in spots, bogging down the read.
The author is at his strongest with world building, paying attention to the social settings as well as the physical. This strength is most evident in the world of Senal with clever devices like the stat, which feeds the agoraphobic Hormlings information as well as sedatives to calm them, or a ranking system based on the number of letters in an individual's last name and influenced by sexual partners. With Irion, the problem is one of terminology. Grimsley's has sacrificed legibility for creativity; perhaps for a linguist of Jedda's caliber, learning countless new words in a constant stream with no end in sight is all well and good, but some readers used to the more common fantasy elements of dwarves and elves may become confused. A glossary would have greatly contributed to the understanding of the worlds.
Despite this, the author clearly is knowledgeable of the genre and employs many of the standards that are welcome clichés: ancient prophecies, the apprenticeship of mages, even describing every meal in a savory manner to entice a reader. However, none of these elements are extraordinary or uniquely used by Grimsley except for the magic system. Wizards sing their spells with an acoustical science to the words that enables magic; the erudite notion is barely explored in the book and may befuddle readers rather than enchant. The fact that Jedda, a linguist, would be perfectly suited for learning such magic also seems too coincidental to suspend disbelief.
The most interesting aspect of the book, and one that Grimsley should be commended for, is that he does involve several of his characters in the search for higher meaning. Too often speculative fiction writers steer clear of philosophy and theology for fear of alienating readers without giving credit to the open-mindedness that genre fans oft possess. That said, there is a deus ex machina ending that some may disapprove of.
Grimsley, an author who is not afraid to insert homosexuality into his speculative fiction (or, for that matter, his literary works), nicely interweaves queer elements with the plot. On Irion, same-sex relationships are perfectly acceptable pairings (though it seems odd that a monarch would be allowed to pass without heirs—in history, homosexual rulers still indulged in wives for the benefit of the state). The situation on Senal is murkier; bisexual Jedda has mature daughters back home but we know little of her past affairs. The romance between the linguist and Malin is a weaker element of the story than the author no doubt intended. Readers are expected to accept that "love at first sight" binds these two mature women. Little courtship or flirtation leads them to the bedchamber and a shared affection too strong for belief after so little interaction.
Other problems of the book include a surprising and unnecessary change of point of view two-thirds into the novel, compounding the already slow storytelling. The novel closes anticlimactically with an open ending, leaving the reader to assume there must be a sequel. Quirky and delightful characters in the early portion of the book are quickly abandoned.
For aficionados of speculative fiction new to the author, The Ordinary will be an interesting but long-winded offering. Fans of Grimsley may enjoy this rich appetizer but will have to wait for the main course on Senal to be sated.
Steve Berman has written over 60 articles and stories, most involving queer themes and speculative literature. He is currently editing two anthologies, one involving g/l/b/t faeries. His collection, Trysts, was reviewed in an earlier issue of SH. You can contact him by email at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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