Swords Against Wizardry: Leiber’s fantastic imagination on full display

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fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsFritz Leiber Swords Against WizardrySwords Against Wizardry by Fritz Leiber

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.”

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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.

~Kat Hooper

Swords Against Wizardry by Fritz LeiberThis is the fourth collection of stories in Fritz Leiber’s FAFHRD AND THE GRAY MOUSER series, and is better than the previous volume, Swords in the Mist. It features four stories: “In the Witch’s Tent” (1968), “Stardock” (1965), “The Two Best Thieves in Lankhmar” (1968), and “The Lords of Quarmall” (1964). My personal favorites are “Stardock” and “The Two Best Thieves in Lankhmar.” The first story is just a short framing piece, so I’ll focus on the main three stories.

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviews“Stardock” is a fast-paced and amazingly-written adventure in which Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser climb Stardock, an imposing ice-covered mountain that is the Newhon equivalent of Everest, in a quest to retrieve a pouch of gems that legend holds were made by the gods as test-models for the stars, which were then cast off after creation (hence the mountain’s name, Stardock, where the stars were first launched into the sky). As Kat’s review has mentioned, the writing is eloquent and top-notch, especially impressive when used to describe the harrowing ascent of the mountain, which he likens to a cold and imposing woman:

Begin first at her feet. That glimmering skirt falling from her snowy hips, which are almost as high as the Obelisk — that’s the White Waterfall, where no man may live. Now to her head again. From her flat tilted snowcap hang two great braids of swelling snow, streaming almost perpetually with avalanches, as if she combed ‘em day and night — the Tresses, those are called. Between them’s a wide ladder of dark rock, marked at three points by ledges. The topmost of the three ledge-banks is the Face — d’you note the lower ledges marking eyes and lips?

The climb itself is terrifying and reminds me of the movie Vertical Limit. Leiber must have spent some time researching mountain-climbing to get the details right. And once they get closer to the summit, they encounter a number of adversaries, including rival gem-hunters, furry serpents and a tribe of invisible people, including two tempting young maidens who claim that Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser are there to provide their seed to strengthen the tribe’s gene pool! Well, what are two rogues to do? After this improbable interlude they reach their ultimate goal, the gems that were cast off by the gods…

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsIn “The Two Best Thieves in Lankhmar,” our two heroes are back in Lankhmar with the spoils of their climb to Stardock, a collection of jewels that are invisible by day but sparkle by night. On the way back they tire of each other’s company and decide to split the loot. The story details their attempts to separately find buyers for these unique gems. When they encounter two female counterparts, their plans quickly go awry, and the title of the story takes on added significance. This story is classic fun as the tables are turned.

The final story “The Lords of Quarmall” was actually first conceived by Harry Fischer, Leiber’s close friend who first conceived of the Fafhrd and Gray Mouser characters (modeled after the two friends), back in 1937. However, it languished and was not completed until the 1960s when Leiber was organizing the stories and offered to finish the tale.

The story is about a strange and sinister underground kingdom called Quarmall, which is ruled over by the ancient sorcerer Lord Quarmall, his Master Magician Flindach, and his two opposed and yet equally vile sons Gwaay and Hasjarl. Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser are hired separately by the two sons to support their respective bids to seize power as their aging father weakens.

It’s interesting that the story spends more time with the two sons, who are both cruel, ambitious, and insanely hateful of each other and their father as well. For me, this made it very hard to enjoy the story since the main characters are so unpleasant and our two heroes are relegated to the sidelines for much of the story. I suspect this is partly because this was written before Leiber had really established the tone and pattern of the series. It is weaker for having the two rogues in auxiliary roles, though the latter half of the story picks up nicely, again not a surprise since this is where Leiber took over writing. The final clash of the two brothers, the duel between Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, and the surprise ending are classic Leiber, and redeem what was initially a bit hard to get into.

Overall, Swords Against Wizardry is another solid entry in the series, second only to Swords Against Death. There are still three more volumes in the series, but the next two, Swords of Lankhmar and Swords and Ice Magic, are not as good as the first four according to the reviews I’ve read, and the final book The Knight and Knave of Swords features the two adventurers settling down to retire on Rime Isle reminiscing about old times, and who wants to read about that? Clearly Leiber himself was reflecting back on his two beloved characters and their amazing 50-year run, but that is not itself justification for a final collection of stories. So I prefer to stick with the first four volumes when our heroes are hot-blooded, hungry for adventure, and full of ironic observations.

~Stuart Starosta

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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 13 years with his wife, daughter, and dog named Lani. Stuart's reading goal is to read as many classic SF novels and Hugo/Nebula winners as possible, David Pringle's 100 Best SF and 100 Best Fantasy Novels, along with newer books & series that are too highly-praised to be ignored. His favorite authors include Philip K Dick, China Mieville, Iain M. Banks, N.K. Jemisin, J.G. Ballard, Lucius Shepard, Neal Stephenson, Kurt Vonnegut, George R.R. Martin, Neil Gaiman, Robert Silverberg, Roger Zelazny, Ursula K. LeGuin, Guy Gavriel Kay, Arthur C. Clarke, H.G. Wells, Olaf Stapledon, J.R.R. Tolkien, Mervyn Peake, etc.

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  1. Glad to see this series picks-up again with this book. Swords in the Mist was a little dry to me too.
    Leiber is awesome I hope to get back into these books again someday.

  2. Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd/Mouser stories are so similar to Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories, and I know both writers were influenced by H. P. Lovecraft–I wonder if Howard and Leiber ever connected with one another?

  3. Jana, strangely enough I’ve never read Howard’s Conan series, so the only Conan I know has the thick Austrian accent.
    The big different would be that Conan is a lone wolf-type, and doesn’t make ironic quips, does he?

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