Note: Friday's Forgotten Books is a regular feature at pattinase, the blog of crime writer Patti Abbott. Log on each week to discover old, obscure and unfairly overlooked titles.
Fantasy usually concerns itself with sweeping subjects. The rise and decline of ancient empires. Fell magics as old as the cosmos. The terrible tolls mighty armies extract on the field of battle. You get the idea: It's a Texas-sized genre. Small doings and personal struggles generally need not apply unless they somehow factor into the grander picture. That's why Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories (which have largely fallen out of the popular consciousness) read so differently than contemporary fantasy. Though they contain all the tropes, such as swords and spells and spectacularly strange beasties, their protagonists are petty criminals preoccupied with petty deeds. In fact, Leiber's first installment in the series, Swords and Deviltry, feels more like crime fiction than anything else.
Grown to near manhood in the Cold Waste north of the Trollstep Mountains, barbarian Fafhrd once stood to inherit a chieftain's life and the hand of a beautiful maiden. But an insatiable longing to see the civilized south bore him away from the land of his birth. In another corner of the land of Nehwon, Mouse had planned to spend his days studying gentle conjurations with a humble hedge wizard. Yet when a local lord's prejudice lead to his mentor's death, he took up the sword and a new name -- the Grey Mouser. When the two meet by chance in smoggy Lankhmar (called City of Sevenscore Thousand Smokes), a meeting conducted over the unconscious bodies of professional thieves (their loot hastily divvied up by share), an impromptu agreement is sealed between the northman and the former magician's apprentice. Come peril or danger, fire or blood, Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser will face it together.
Time magazine's Lev Grossman named the Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories in a list of his favorite fantasy novels, calling their protangists "pure hard-boiled noir." This may be a bit of an overstatement, particularly in Swords and Deviltry's opening novella, "The Snow Women." Intended to explain Fafhrd's origins, it's a slow slog through cold wastes, one alternately serious and silly. Jealous womenfolk weave deadly ice magic and pelt interlopers with frozen snowballs. A village leader plummets to his death attempting to leap a gorge on skis. Flush with jealousy over a comely southern dancer, Fafhrd knocks over the tent of one of her admirers with a sleigh. Only during a climactic battle near the story's end do the kid gloves come off and the hardboiled tone asserts itself with a vengeance. ("His sword came away almost before the gushing blood, black in the moonlight, had wet it, and certainly before Hrey had lifted his great hands in a futile effort to stop the great choking flow. It all happened very easily.")
The other two tales fare better. "The Unholy Grail," which details the Gray Mouser's background, is a classic revenge story, showing how the unjust killing of mild-mannered Mouse's mentor turned him into a remorseless rogue trapped between light and darkness. A subtle, slightly ambiguous ending only adds to the intrigue. But "Ill Met In Lankhmar" is the best out of all of them, a slow-burning noir that gradually grows more and more dire, culminating in the kind of all-out martial rush that high fantasy does so well. Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser's robbing from the Thieves' Guild teaches them that there are higher prices to pay than one's own life. Deviltry provides an intriguing twist on a oft-stale genre.
(Picture: CC 2007 by One lucky guy)