Swords in the Mist: Uneven volume, but “Lean Times in Lankhmar” is good

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fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsbook review Swords in the Mist Fritz Leiber Lankhmar 3Swords in the Mist by Fritz Leiber

All due respect to the late Fritz Leiber, but overall, this book was weak.

The first story, “Cloud of Hate” was good. Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser unwittingly take-on Hate embodied in a noxious mist that turns already shady characters into rampaging serial killers. The next one, “Lean Times in Lankhmar”, starts out interesting as the life-long friends go their separates ways, but goes flat. “Their Mistress, the Sea” builds up well but the ending seemed to be missing something. The rest of the book brings Fafhrd and Gray Mouser to our world’s ancient history, which should’ve made for a great read. But contradictions concerning their memory (they supposedly lost all knowledge of their previous life in the world of Newhon, but yet they make references to it), adventures told as second-hand accounts, and a prose that seems meant to be humorous and clever, only made the story confusing and monotonous. I got the impression that these stories are a satire, maybe of something going-on either in literature or in society at the time they were written, but I didn’t get it.

I’m a big fan of Fafhrd and The Gray Mouser, or at least of their first two books. But if Swords in the Mist had been my first LANKHMAR book, I don’t think I’d have read any more of them. Fritz Leiber is rightfully considered one of the original masters of fantasy. His writing spans over 50 years. So it’s only natural that he’s produced at least a few clunkers.

~Greg Hersom

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsbook review Swords in the Mist Fritz Leiber Lankhmar 3Swords in the Mist (1968) is Fritz Leiber’s third collection of stories about Fafhrd, the big northern barbarian, and the Gray Mouser, his small wily companion who has a predilection for thievery and black magic. The tales of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser originally appeared in pulp magazines, short novels, and story collections between 1939-1988. Swords in the Mist contains:

  • “The Cloud of Hate” (1963) — This is a short eerie metaphor in which hate becomes a mist that reaches out in tendrils throughout Lankhmar to find corruptible souls to use for evil deeds.
  • “Lean Times in Lankhmar” (1959) — In this novelette, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser part ways and find themselves at odds when Fafhrd becomes an acolyte and the Mouser is hired to extract money from Fafhrd’s cult. Humorous and cynical, this story makes fun of Lankhmar’s polytheism and makes the seediness, decadence, and corruption of the city come alive. The ending is hilarious.
  • “Their Mistress, the Sea” (original publication) — This story makes a nice bridge between “Lean Times in Lankhmar” and “When the Sea-King’s Away” but it’s entertaining in its own right.
  • “When the Sea-King’s Away” (1960) — This is a fun fantastical story with a great setting (under the sea!) in which Fafhrd has a sword fight with an octopus.
  • “The Wrong Branch” (original publication) — This is a bridge between the previous story and the following novella:
  • “Adept’s Gambit” (1947) — Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser arrive in our world (Macedonia) in this novella. There are some funny parts here — Fafhrd kissing pigs and analyzing Socrates, but mostly I found this story dull. The sorcerer Ningauble of the Seven Eyes has sent the boys on a near-impossible quest, but the exciting parts are quickly skipped over and too much of the story is spent with an unpleasant character’s excruciatingly long autobiography.

I love Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser because they’re intelligent rogues. They look like a big dumb barbarian and a sneaky little street urchin, and they love nothing more than drinking, fighting, and wenching, yet they’ve got big vocabularies, make glorious similes and metaphors, and enjoy philosophizing. When they’re doing these things, they’re irresistible, especially in the audiobook versions narrated by Jonathan Davis (Audible Frontiers).

However, half of Swords in the Mist consists of a novella that was not as fun as I’ve come to expect from Fritz Leiber’s Lankhmar stories (perhaps this is partly because it doesn’t take place in Lankhmar). I would suggest that, unless you consider yourself a completist, you find “Lean Times in Lankhmar” and “When the Sea-King’s Away” and skip the rest of Swords in the Mist.

~Kat Hooper

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsSwords in the Mist by Fritz Leiber fantasy book reviewsThis is the third collection of stories in Fritz Leiber’s FAFHRD AND THE GRAY MOUSER series, and the quality is quite varied. “Lean Times in Lankhmar” (1959) and “When the Sea-King’s Away” (1960) are good, swashbuckling fun, and “The Cloud of Hate” (1963) is short but creepily effective. However, “Their Mistress, the Sea” (1968) and “The Wrong Branch” (1968) are just short connective stories of little consequence. Finally, “Adept’s Gambit” (1947), is an odd fish that doesn’t really fit with the rest of the series, a novella in which Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser are placed in our ancient world and sent on a long quest by Ningauble of the Seven Eyes.

The highlight is definitely “Lean Times in Lankhmar,” in which Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser part ways to settle down and give up their adventuring. Fafhrd becomes an ascetic, giving up fighting, drink, and women to become an acolyte to an addled priest of the minor god Issek of the Jug. The Gray Mouser throws in his fate with Pulg, a shakedown artist and criminal who targets other religions. Of course things start to get complicated when Pulg decides to target Fafhrd’s cult, which has been gaining in popularity thanks to his oratory and singing skills. The two former companions struggle to reconcile the situation, as the Mouser using various stratagems to lure Fafhrd away from his new life while still keeping his suspicious boss in check. The story reaches a climax as Fafhrd wakes up from a massive drinking session after being fooled by the Mouser, only to unwittingly strengthen the legend of Issek of the Jug…

“When the Sea-King’s Away” is a rollicking underwater adventure that reads like a part of the Pirates of the Carribean movies, as Fafhrd this time is lured below the ocean by mysterious air pockets under water, which lead him to the lair of the Sea King, where the Mouser has to go after him as he cannot resist the urge to participate in an adventure, no matter how dubious. The two bravos must battle various monsters including a sword-wielding giant octopus. It’s a nice contrast to “The Bazaar of the Bizarre,” in which Fafhrd had to bail out the Mouser from trouble. Their loyalty to each other is every bit what is now called a “bromance.”

Meanwhile, “Adept’s Gambit” is just plain strange, and doesn’t really fit with the rest of the series. It starts out promising, as the two rogues are lounging in a tavern with wenches on their laps and mugs of beer in hand, but when Fafhrd tries to kiss his girl, she turns into a pig. The Mouser is amused until the same thing happens, but his girl becomes a giant snail! So they appeal to Ningauble of the Seven Eyes for help, but he is very reluctant and tells them it’s no more than they deserve for their roguish ways. After much cajoling, he finally agrees to help them only if they complete an imposing list of near-impossible quests.

From all the reviews I read of this story, it’s overlong and skips the most promising parts of the plot, and tells their tale as a second-hand narrative. Add that to the fact that they are not in Newhon but instead in our ancient world, and I really wasn’t too enthusiastic to go any further, so I didn’t finish it. It strikes me as an early experiment before Leiber had really decided the right direction for these characters, and it doesn’t mesh well in the overall story arc.

In the end, as Kat has also mentioned in her earlier review, only “Lean Times in Lankhmar” and “When the Sea-King’s Away” are worth reading in this collection, and “Adept’s Gambit” remains an oddity. It actually was initially submitted to H.P. Lovecraft for authorial advice, and the initial draft was uncovered and published in hardcover by Arcane Wisdom Press in 2014. It contains many references to “the Elder Gods,” and also includes the advice and notes of Lovecraft to Leiber, but this would only be of interest to hardcore enthusiasts. I’ve heard that the fourth volume, Swords Against Wizardry, is a return to form with a number of classic stories, so I’m moving on to that next!

~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 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. occams beard /

    you my lady are one listening and review writing machine. I read a lot but I get distracted from throwing out reviews. You must be able to compose essays in your sleep with no editing for mistakes. I think I admire and hate you at the same time ok I do not really hate anyone, least of all you. I just wanted to say hi and mention I entered the rename your cover book contest with what I thought was a pretty hysterical take on it. I am beginning to think your children are self service and you have clones. I just cannot believe the shear output of written stuff you put out and raise a gaggle of folks and teach college. I am definitely a slacker by comparison. Ok I do have some health problems, but still, UH-mazing, glad I found you on goodreads.

  2. Or maybe I just don’t have much of a social life?
    Thanks, though! I love my kids, my job, and reading speculative fiction, so it’s all easy!

  3. I think “Lean Times in Lankhmar” is probably my favorite story of the entire series, possibly one of my favorite fantasy stories ever by any author.
    Actually, I did like “Adept’s Gambit” (the story that take place outside of the Lankhmar universe) a little more than you did perhaps, but then I’m probably a “completist” (as you so aptly term it) when it comes to these stories.

  4. I still think this collection has one of the best titles ever.

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