Friday, October 29, 2010

Friday's Forgotten Books: Swords and Deviltry by Fritz Leiber

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)

10 comments:

bv said...

I haven't been a big reader of fantasy fiction in the past, but as a literary omnivore, I've been wanting to read a fantasy book or two, and this sounds like a great one to put on the list. Thanks!

Evan Lewis said...

Wow. It's been a long time since I read this series. It deserves another round.

Todd Mason said...

Well, yes, BV...this is an excellent place to start (and I disagree slightly, Loren...I like "The Snow Women" somewhat more than "The Unholy Grail"--I think you're shortchanging some of the humor of the first story, and it's worth remembering that Fafhrd is an analog for Leiber himself, the Mouser for his friend Harry Fischer, who helped develop the characters and co-wrote the first story written in the series, "Adept's Gambit" in the late '30s), The two origin stories and "Ill Met in Lankhmar"--a pure fantasy story which swept the science fiction awards for its year--are among the best stories in this fine series, which I suspect isn't as forgotten as Loren thinks...though perhaps the height of their popularity came in the mid-'70s, when this volume was part of a series well-supported by Ace Books and DC Comics had an adapaptation book going, SWORD OF SORCERY. There was talk of a movie at the time.

Scott Cupp's suggestion of Phyllis Eisenstein's BORN TO EXILE, SWORDS AND DEVILTRY and its sequels, Jack Vance's THE DYING EARTH and THE EYES OF THE OVERWORLD (or buy the fat omnibus TALES OF THE DYING EARTH), Joanna Russ's THE ADVENTURES OF ALYX (featuring a guest appearance by Fafhrd; Alyx appears in a Leiber story, too), and Karl Edward Wagner's DARKNESS WEAVES would be an excellent introduction to the S&S canon...add perhaps (Ms.) Leigh Brackett's collection SEA KINGS OF MARS for a stronger taste of science-fantasy/space opera/planetary romance.

There's a grit and attention to character detail in these works that even such progenitors as Robert Howard and Clark Ashton Smith can't quite match. As heretical to Texans, particularly, as that comment on Conan's creator might be. Brackett is of a similar vintage to Howard, but a better writer, certainly a better handler of prose (sorry, folks).

Todd Mason said...

Some of the weaker entries in the Leiber series were as a result of their therapeutic use to Leiber...he would ease back into fiction-writing, after interregna usually lost to intense alcholic bouts, by working out life-stages with the characters he would return to throughout his life.

Loren Eaton said...

bv,

Hope you enjoy it! Deviltry's pretty different from most of the fantasy I've read, just so you're forewarned.

Loren Eaton said...

Evan,

Have you made it through the entire series? Does the quality stay pretty high throughout?

Loren Eaton said...

Todd,

"The Snow Women" was supposed to be funny? Uh oh, I may have missed the point entirely.

Interesting about how Leiber would use fiction to combat alcoholism. I didn't know that. Sound like what R.A. Lafferty would do.

Loren Eaton said...

Post Script: Hey, wait, you were the person who also told me about Lafferty! Guess I owe you double thanks.

Donna Hole said...

This sounds really interesting. I love the older fantasy novels.

.......dhole

Loren Eaton said...

They're fun, aren't they? So nice to have an older take on the genre. Contemporary novels tend to fall into ruts.