Swords Against Death: Sword and sorcery’s most famous duo are in top form

Lankhmar Volume 2: Swords Against Death (Bk. 2) Swords Against Death by Fritz Leiber

This is the second collection of stories in the FAFHRD AND THE GRAY MOUSER series, but the majority of the stories were written well before the stories of the first book, Swords and Deviltry. Again Fritz Leiber took a group of independent stories written in the early 1940s and added connective and framing material to make the book more cohesive. As a result, I think some the best stories are the earliest ones, written for the pulp magazines like Unknown, though the final story is also excellent.

There are ten stories altogether in Swords and Deviltry, though seven of them first appeared in a collection called Two Sought Adventure published in 1957. All of the stories are filled with the rough-and-tumble adventures of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, two rogues, swordsmen, con-men, and treasure-hunting adventurers. Having suffered tragedy at the end of the previous novel, they continue to mourn this loss and initially vow to never return to the teeming city of Lankhmar, but in the initial story “The Circle Curse,” they discover that even after three years of restless questing they have still not assuaged their pain, and decide this path is fruitless.

All the stories in this collection are written with swift, deft touches of humor, amazing descriptive passages, and exciting but tightly-written action sequences. The quality of writing is vastly superior to later books in the genre that merely try to recreate the flair of these originals. Among them, I found the following four stories to be standouts:

In “The Jewels in the Forest” (1939) the two adventurers are lured by obscure references written in the margins of a book that point to a mysterious treasure located in a tower in a forest. They journey in search of this, also making a stop at a peasant’s house to entertain for their food (which recalls but contrasts sharply with a similar stop-over by the Hound and Arya in Game of Thrones Season 3). When they arrive at the tower, they discover it to be a tomb built by a madman to lure treasure-seekers, but seemingly undefended. This soon turns out to be wrong, and the duo has to battle a terrifying monster to escape.

In “Thieves House” (1943), our two heroes steal a jeweled skull but are then double-crossed by the Thieves Guild member who hired them for the job. Despite their earlier vow to never return, they find themselves again trying to infiltrate the Thieves House in order to exact revenge. They find themselves again entangled with their hated rival Kroval, the head of the guild, but even the Theives’ Guild itself has not bargained with the eldritch powers protecting the jeweled skull, and it falls on Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser to put things to rights or face the wrath of the undead. The whole Thieves’ Guild concept has certainly influenced Dungeons & Dragons, not to mention the long-running shared-world Thieves’ World anthologies edited by Robert Aspirin and Lynn Abbey.

In “The Price of Pain-Ease” (1970), Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser are still mourning the loss of their lovers, and settle down in their former lover’s abodes and get a bit maudlin and indolent. So they consult with Ningauble of the Seven Eyes and Sheelba of the Eyeless Face, who essentially cut a deal with them that if they pledge their service then these wizards will grant them a reunion with their lost loves now dwelling in the Shadow Lands. So they are tasked with the impossible mission of stealing Death’s Mask. It’s a great concept, and the idea of Death becoming a character has also been humorously explored in Terry Pratchett’s Mort, and in very different fashion in Piers Anthony’s On a Pale Horse. My only complaint is that the story ends fairly abruptly, and I wanted more involvement from Death (how often can you say that?).

The final story, “The Bazaar of the Bizarre” (1963), is suitably strange and fantastic. Our two rogues are summoned by their patron wizards to infiltrate a strange shop peddling curios in The Plaza of Dark Delights. The Gray Mouser shows up early and is enchanted by the various goods that he perceives to be the objects of his greatest desire, including a series of golden cages with beautiful maidens hanging from the ceiling. Fafhrd, on the other hand, is given a spider web blindfold of true-seeing and cloak of invisibility by his patron, and thus sees through the illusion to discover the bazaar is selling worthless trash and the situation is far more sinister than at first glance. He must do battle with various formidable foes to win free and save the Mouser, who is blissfully unaware of any danger and hilariously interferes with Fafhrd’s desperate swordfights with skeleton warriors.

This story really reminded me in tone of the opening of Jack Vance’s The Eyes of the Overworld, in which Cugel the Clever enters the tent of a curio seller, and first learns of the treasures held by Ioucounu the Laughing Magician, since he too cannot resist the allure of magic talismans just like the Mouser. The only difference is that Cugel does not have a faithful companion like Fafhrd the Barbarian to bail him out, but I’m quite certain they share a kindred spirit.

Overall, this collection of stories is an excellent introduction to the FAFHRD AND THE GRAY MOUSER series, more so than the previous book Swords and Deviltry (with the exception of the initial meeting story “Ill Met in Lankhmar”). If any of it seems to ring familiar to other sword and sorcery adventures you have read, that is merely the greatest form of flattery to the legacy of Leiber’s archetypal adventurers.

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STUART STAROSTA, on our staff since March 2015, is a lifelong SFF reader who makes his living reviewing English translations of Japanese equity research. Despite growing up in beautiful Hawaii, he spent most of his time reading as many SFF books as possible. After getting an MA in Japanese-English translation in Monterey, CA, he has lived in Tokyo, Japan for the last 10 years with his wife, daughter, and dog named Lani. Stuart's current reading goal is to fill in all the gaps in his reading of classic SF novels and Hugo/Nebula winners, as well as David Pringle's 100 Best SF and Fantasy Novels, before moving back to reading newer books. That's because these classics have been so influential on contemporary writers and he wants to experience the original ideas and stories before they were adopted by later authors. His favorite authors include Neal Stephenson, Philip K Dick, China Mieville, Iain M. Banks, Lois McMaster Bujold, Gene Wolfe, George R.R. Martin, Guy Gavriel Kay, Walter Jon Williams, Ursula K. LeGuin, Arthur C. Clarke, H.G. Wells, Robert Silverberg, Roger Zelanzy, Olaf Stapledon, J.R.R. Tolkien, Mervyn Peake, Kurt Vonnegut, etc.

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One comment

  1. I remember some of these. These two mercenaries are still my favorites.

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