The time has come for sorcery and swords.
After a somewhat disappointing third volume in the Lankhmar series, Fritz Leiber is back to form in Swords Against Wizardry. This book contains four stories about Fafhrd the big red-headed barbarian, and The Gray Mouser, the small wily magician-thief. Three of the stories come from the pulp magazine Fantastic and the first story was created for this volume as an introduction. The stories fit so well together that they almost feel like a novel.
“In the Witch’s Tent” is a very short introductory story in which Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser visit a witch who prophesies about the events to come in the next story.
In the novella “Stardock” (1965, Fantastic), our heroes and an ice-cat companion climb the forbidding mountain Stardock where they hope to find “a pouch of stars.” This story is slow in the beginning when the boys are climbing, but once they conquer Stardock, things get pretty exciting and, after leaving some incubating DNA behind, they leave the mountain with a bag of jewels that can only be seen at night. All of Fritz Leiber’s stories are gorgeously written, but “Stardock” has some of my favorite lines:
Fafhrd said dreamily, “They say the gods once dwelt and had their smithies on Stardock and from thence, amid jetting fire and showering sparks, launched all the stars; hence her name. They say diamonds, rubies, smaragds — all great gems — are the tiny pilot models the gods made of the stars… and then threw carelessly away across the world when their great work was done.”
I wish I could play those lines for you from the audio version read by Jonathan Davis. It’s beautiful.
“The Two Best Thieves in Lankhmar” (1968, Fantastic) is a fun short story that takes place after the boys return to the city after their conquest of Stardock. Apparently they got sick of each other on the way home (that happens occasionally and is a clue to the type of story that comes next), so they split up the jewels and went their separate ways. Both are trying to sell their share of the jewels, which is a problem because these gems can only be seen at night. When the story begins, the reader assumes that “The Two Best Thieves in Lankhmar” refers to Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, but we all learn soon enough that what the Mouser says is true: Deal with a woman — surest route to disaster.
“The Lords of Quarmall” (1964, Fantastic) is one of my favorite Leiber novellas. Having split up for a time, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser have, unbeknownst to them, each been hired to be the champion of two horrible brothers who hate each other and who want their father’s throne. The brother who hired the Mouser lives in subterranean caves underneath the brother who hired Fafhrd. Even though we can guess how the story will end, this is a creative tale with a grand setting. Fritz Leiber’s fantastic imagination is on full display in this story, and it beautifully highlights the sweet relationship these two rogues have with each other.
I can’t heap enough praise on the audio version of the Lankhmar books. Jonathan Davis is one of the best voice performers and these are some of his best performances. If you listen to audiobooks, don’t miss this series. If you don’t listen to audiobooks, listen to these and you’ll be converted.