A Discourse in Steel is the second novel in Paul S. Kemp’s EGIL AND NIX series about a couple of “retired” graverobbers who just can’t seem to stay out of trouble. I thought the first book, The Hammer and the Blade, was a fun story that didn’t quite meet the standards of Fritz Leiber’s LANKHMAR series which is an obvious influence. I was happy to give Egil and Nix another chance to charm me, though.
This time the guys investigate Black Alley, a dark extra-dimensional space that shows up somewhere around their town every evening. Then they take on the Thieves’ Guild who is planning to kill one of the women that Egil and Nix saved in the previous book. These adventures take them to strange places where they meet strange people and other creatures. For most of the time they are in imminent danger of being brutally killed and they must use all their brains and brawn to stay alive and to protect the people they love. Along the way they do a little philosophizing — talking about the meaning of life, their regrets, the pathetic legacy they’re leaving behind, the importance of our memories and past deeds to who we are, and even the provocative idea that the bad things we’ve done could make us a better person.
Readers who loved The Hammer and the Blade (which seems to be the majority based on reviews I’ve seen elsewhere) will probably love A Discourse in Steel, too. It’s just as good as its predecessor. The action is non-stop, the characters are likable (though Egil and Nix make a couple of really dumb decisions), the dialogue is somewhat amusing, and the plot is tight and unpredictable.
I can’t stop myself from comparing Egil and Nix to Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, however, because the influence is so obvious (in fact, I think one of Leiber’s stories involved Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser busting into the Theives’ Guild and, instead of “Black Alley,” Leiber has a “Death Alley”). Like Leiber, Kemp does a great job with his characters — roguish thieves who are a little more intelligent and educated than you’d expect and who tend to wax philosophical while drinking.
What’s missing here, though, is the clever and almost poetic prose and dialogue that Leiber’s so brilliant with; Leiber’s style is a large part of why I love Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser. Kemp’s style is appealing enough, but it just can’t compare to Leiber. Compare the texts side by side and you’ll see what I mean. Leiber’s words, not just his plot, can give you chills. If you’re just in it for the action, Kemp’s story will do nicely. If you’re looking for a full Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser experience, Egil and Nix don’t quite measure up. On the other hand, Kemp’s stories have a feminist sensibility that Leiber’s lacks. I’m often annoyed with Leiber’s portrayal of his female characters, so I definitely appreciate Kemp’s more modern spin.
In the end, I guess I’d say that the EGIL AND NIX stories lack both what I love about Leiber’s stories and what I hate, which makes them an average read. Many readers will find this to be an unfair criticism, and I realize that may be true, but I am hoping that my comparison will help potential readers know what to expect. I did enjoy A Discourse in Steel and I recommend this series to sword & sorcery fans looking for something new. Egil and Nix aren’t the next Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, but they are still entertaining.
I’ll continue to read this series in audiobook format. Nick Podehl is the narrator. I had to speed him up a bit because his cadence sometimes trudges along, and I think his voice for Nix is a little high-pitched, but generally I liked him.