Swords Against Wizardry by Fritz Leiber

This entry is part 5 of 23 in the series 2023 Reads

As always, I’m posting a little after finishing the book in question. In this case, just a day after. Incidentally, the volume I’m reading from is the one I used in the header, the Gollancz Fantasy Masterworks edition of The First Book of Lankhmar, but I’m counting it as four separate “books” because, hey, humor me. I have a kid, I’m slow and it makes me feel a bit better about my limited reading progress! (And that is how these collections were originally published.)

I’ve been reading all the Fafhrd and Gray Mouser books in slow motion, it seems. I read the first few volumes in 2014, then the third last year, and I’ve finally gotten around to the fourth volume, “Swords Against Wizardry.” A friend warned me that some of the stories toward the middle of the series were not the strongest, and I kind of wonder whether he was talking about one of the ones in this volume. 

Not that it’s a bad book!

Though it’s mostly just setup, “In the Witch’s Tent” is a fine, colorful little piece. The first big story of the volume, “Stardock,” is actually mostly great: it manages to make climbing a deadly mountain dramatic, which I suspect is, in fiction, more challenging than it seems it ought to be, in the same way that writing about (or hearing your friend’s recounting of) a basketball game or love affair is nothing like as exciting as experiencing it firsthand. There’s an odd ending involving supernatural mountain women (giantesses?) whose race is going extinct and needs some fresh blood. 

(Well, not blood, exactly; it’s a different body fluid they extract from the two heroes.) That bit’s probably inevitable in pulp stories from the time, but believe me, the tale of their ascent of “Stardock” was riveting. 

“The Two Best Thieves in Lankhmar” also feels a bit like setup and stage management. I think it was written for the collection, explaining how and why Fafhrd and Gray Mouser are at odds in the beginning of the following piece. I appreciated that the eponymous “two best thieves in Lankhmar” are evidently not the pair we’re most familiar with, but rather are the women who seduce them, rip them off, and leave them broke. Noteworthy is that these women are clearly a couple—it’s a bit male-gazey but still feels noteworthy in how frank it is about the sexual dimension of their relationship—and the fact that Joanna Russ’s Alyx (from The Adventures of Alyx) makes a tiny cameo in the final line of the tale, shaking her head at Fafhrd and Gray Mouse’s (characteristically male) foolishness. 

The last piece in the volume, “The Lords of Quarmall,” too me ages to get through. It’s the product of a time-delayed collaboration between Leiber and his friend Harry Otto Fischer, who had written a 10,000 word novella years earlier. By the time Leiber got the idea of expanding the tale and adding his duo to it, Fischer had moved stopped writing and become a (supposedly successful) businessman. The tale has its moments, but it didn’t really hold my attention, and I suspect it was the bits penned by Fischer that bored me most. (I still enjoyed the amusing “battle” between Fafhrd and Gray Mouser that begins, “Remember Ool Hrusp!” “Remember Lithquil!”) Still, I think mainly, the last piece suffers from the fact that one of the pleasures of reading a Fafhrd & Gray Mouser story is found in how they interact with one another; they spend most of “The Lords of Quarmall” separated. That’s probably why, for me, it feels so lacking and forgettable, I guess. I was genuinely surprised to find out about a music project named after the story, though, so I guess that shows you some people like it fine! 

Anyway, I’ll probably take a little while to get to the next volume, but I hope to do so before the summer arrives. When I do return to the duo, it’ll be in The Second Book of Lankhmar, which is here on the shelf, but which I’m not quite ready to dive into.  

Series Navigation<< <em>Power Born of Dreams: My Story is Palestine</em> by Mohammad Sabaaneh<em>Haynes Saxophone Manual</em> by Stephen Howard >>

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *