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

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fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsbook review Fritz Leiber Lankhmar Swords Against Death Fafhrd adn the Grey MouserSwords Against Death by Fritz Leiber

After a self-imposed exile, our heroes — the legendary Fafhrd and Gray Mouser — are back to their old shenanigans in the sinful city of Lankhmar. Shortly after their return, they find themselves hypnotically drawn across Newhon’s Outer Sea to lands unknown, only to have to survive a perilous journey to again get back to Lankhmar — the closest thing they have to a home. Along with their other misadventures, they finally come to terms with the deaths of their true-loves.

As stated on the book’s back-cover, Fritz Leiber shares the throne as a master of fantasy along with J.R.R. Tolkien, Robert E. Howard, and C.S. Lewis. In fact, I’ve heard that LANKHMAR was the model for the first DUNGEON & DRAGON games.

The FAFHRD AND THE GRAY MOUSER tales are classic Sword & Sorcery. Leiber’s prose and dialog have a whimsical, but almost Shakespearean feel, which lends humor to adventures that are nothing short of a good-time. The companionship between the Gray Mouser, a small thief and a former wizard’s-apprentice, and Fafhrd, an almost 7 ft. tall barbarian, is endearing and reminiscent of the camaraderie between the best-friends of one’s childhood. I even get a sense that there’s a little “bohemian” influence (the lifestyle — not the historic people) that makes these stories even more interesting.

I give Swords Against Death four stars, only because I found that, at times, the same prose and rhythm that makes the book so entertaining can also be a little monotonous. Still, Fafhrd and Gray Mouser are well-worth the read and make for a great afternoon-armchair-escape.

~Greg Hersom


fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsbook review Fritz Leiber Lankhmar Swords Against Death Fafhrd adn the Grey Mouser

Ho, Fafhrd tall! Hist, Mouser small!
Why leave you the city Of marvelous parts?
It were a great pity To wear out your hearts
And wear out the soles of your feet,
Treading all earth, Foregoing all mirth,
Before you once more Lankhmar greet.
Now return, now return, now!

Swords Against Death is the second collection of stories about Fafhrd, the big northern barbarian, and The Gray Mouser, the small thief from the slums. For the past three years, the two have grown so close that they are now (as Neil Gaiman suggests in his introduction to the audio version) like two halves of the same person. They’ve been traveling the world together in an effort to forget their lost loves.

During their travels “they acquired new scars and skills, comprehensions and compassions, cynicisms and secrecies — a laughter that lightly mocked, and a cool poise that tightly crusted all inner miseries,” but they haven’t been able to assuage their guilt or lessen their feelings of loss outside of Lankhmar, the city which they swore never to return to.

But as Sheelba of the Eyeless Face prophesied (“Never and forever are neither for men. You’ll be returning again and again.”), Fafhrd and the Mouser are persuaded to return to Lankhmar where, it turns out, they have not been forgotten, and soon the duo is back to their old tricks and dealing with their former enemies in these stories: “The Circle Curse,” “The Jewels in the Forest,” “Thieves’ House,” “The Bleak Shore,” “The Howling Tower,” “The Sunken Land,” “The Seven Black Priests,” “Claws from the Night,” “The Price of Pain-Ease,” and “Bazaar of the Bizarre.”

Some of the stories are better than others (my favorite was “Bazaar of the Bizarre”) but all are “classical rogue” (Neil Gaiman’s term) and all are worth reading simply because they’re written in Fritz Leiber’s gorgeous prose, which is thick with alliteration, insight, and irony.

I listened to Swords Against Death on audio. It was produced by Audible Frontiers, introduced by Neil Gaiman, and read by Jonathan Davis who does a terrific job with this series. His voices for Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser are perfect — Fafhrd sounds pensive, intellectual, and introverted while Gray Mouser sounds a bit greasy and common. I highly recommend this format; it adds an extra dimension to these fun stories.

~Kat Hooper


fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsLankhmar Volume 2: Swords Against Death (Bk. 2) 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.

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsIn “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.

~Stuart Starosta


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GREG HERSOM’S (on FanLit's staff January 2008 -- September 2012) addiction began with his first Superboy comic at age four. He moved on to the hard-stuff in his early teens after acquiring all of Burroughs’s Tarzan books and the controversial L. Sprague de Camp & Carter edited Conan series. His favorite all time author is Robert E. Howard. Greg also admits that he’s a sucker for a well-illustrated cover — the likes of a Frazetta or a Royo. Greg live with his wife, son, and daughter in a small house owned by a dog and two cats in a Charlotte, NC suburb. He retired from FanLit in Septermber 2012 after 4.5 years of faithful service but he still sends us a review every once in a while.

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KAT HOOPER, who started this site in June 2007, earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience and psychology at Indiana University (Bloomington) and now teaches at the University of North Florida. When she reads fiction, she wants to encounter new ideas and lots of imagination. She wants to view the world in a different way. She wants to have her mind blown. She loves beautiful language and has no patience for dull prose, vapid romance, or cheesy dialogue. She prefers complex characterization, intriguing plots, and plenty of action. Favorite authors are Jack Vance, Robin Hobb, Kage Baker, William Gibson, Gene Wolfe, Richard Matheson, and C.S. Lewis.

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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 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. His favorite authors include Philip K Dick, China Mieville, Iain M. Banks, J.G. Ballard, Neal Stephenson, Kurt Vonnegut, George R.R. Martin, Robert Silverberg, Roger Zelazny, Ursula K. LeGuin, Guy Gavriel Kay, Walter Jon Williams, N.K. Jemisin, Arthur C. Clarke, H.G. Wells, Olaf Stapledon, J.R.R. Tolkien, Mervyn Peake, etc.

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2 comments

  1. I love that quote “Never and forever are neither for men”. That’s a truth I’ve had to face several times.

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

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  1. The Ghost Light: Several of Leiber’s award-winning stories | Fantasy Literature: Fantasy and Science Fiction Book and Audiobook Reviews - [...] of the Bizarre” — I loved this novelette when I read it in Leiber’s Lankhmar collection Swords Against Death.…

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