Catherine Lucille Moore -- who wrote under the name C.L. Moore, to disguise her gender -- was one of the finest practitioners of pulp fantasy and science fiction. Over the course of her long career, she created many memorable characters, including interplanetary ne'er-do-well Northwest Smith, but the one that stands heads and shoulders above them all is Jirel of Joiry. Even more remarkable than the fact that Jirel is ruler of her own domain in a fantastical version of medieval France is that, like her male counterparts in pulp fantasy, she matches her sword against sorcery rather than being a passive damsel in distress.
Of course, Jirel is more than a master swordswoman and to emphasize her prowess with the blade is to do the character a grave injustice. Much like the best pulp heroes of the time, Jirel's true appeal lies in her strength of will and psychological fortitude in the face of peril. Quick witted, insightful, and intelligent, Jirel is a true "leader of men," as evidenced in each of the six short stories in which she appears, the first of which is "Black God's Kiss," which appeared in Weird Tales in October 1934.
"Black God's Kiss" begins with Jirel captured and humbled by a rival lord, who throws her into his dungeon because she will not submit to him. Concerned only with the safety of her demesne, Jirel embarks on a plan that, quite literally, results in a deal with the Devil. The story is probably the best and most interesting of the Jirel stories and the one that most powerfully establishes her character. Though a creation of pulp fantasy, she is no female Conan; though a woman, she is no man's plaything, as her antagonist in "Black God's Kiss" learns all too well. Neither is Jirel a Red Sonja. She's not some adolescent male vision of what a warrior-woman might be like; she's the real thing.
For a long time, it was quite difficult to find all the Jirel stories in one volume. Fortunately, Paizo has corrected this problem by publishing a new collection of them. I highly recommend it to anyone who'd like to read what are probably the first swords-and-sorcery stories to feature a female protagonist, written by a woman no less.