What I’m Reading: Fritz Leiber – Swords Against Death

This is the second volume in Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and Gray Mouser books, and I would say that the series really hits its stride here… except that the stories this volume collects are some of the earliest he ever wrote for this setting (in fact, it contains the very first of them, “The Jewels in the Forest”, first published in 1939) and thus precede everything collected in the first volume.

There is a brief introductory piece Leiber wrote for Swords Against Death that connects this volume to the ending of Swords and Devilitry, describing our heroes’ wanderings around the world of Nehwon after the events related in “Ill Met in Lankhmar”. In a somewhat odd turn, Leiber lets Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser return to that city for one story only to have them again leave it to travel to the ends of the earth in the one immediately after, and then has several stories that tell of incidents during their second trip back. This is all a bit weird, and undoubtedly owing to the authors attempt to impose some kind of internal chronology on stories he had writter over the course of three decades. Such things generally tend not to go very well, and Leiber’s series is no exception (and there will be even more abstruse things to explain away in the next volume), one can still see the glue where he has tried to stick the ill-fitting pieces together, and it is not even necessary to look hard for the cracks.

One really wonders why Leiber even bothered with this – the stories do not need a narrative continuum to exist in, they work just fine as unrelated episodes. In fact, one might even wonder if the decrease in quality noticeable in later stories is not due to precisely the author’s ambition to force his tales of rogues & ribaldry into the tight corset of a timeline, if he did not douse the ebullient spirit of adventure the early stories radiate with his attempt at making everything fit into consisent worldbuilding. In the tales collected in Swords Against Death, however, it is quite obvious that he merrily makes stuff up as he goes along and the stories are not any less fun for it.

Very much in evidence here are both Leiber’s fondness for the bizarre (what his worldbuilding lacks in consistency and plausibility it more than makes up for in invention, imagination and general weirdness) and his sense of humour (I’m convinced that Leiber has been a major influence on Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, and anyone who loves those books and has not read any Fafhrd and Gray Mouser yet should do so right away). He even gets outright satirical at times, most pronounced in “Bazaar of the Bizarre” where he takes some – not exactly subtle, but quite funny – stabs at consumerism culture. That story is also a great example of how the friendship between the protagonists fuels and kindles those stories – like all close friends they do not always agree with each other, often are even explicitly at cross-purposes, but in the end they always work together in some way, voluntarily or not. The first volume in the series was an enjoyable read, but this here is great stuff, with the fun factor quite often going through the roof.
This post is part of Lurv A La Mode‘s Year of the Fantasy Classic Challenge.


  1. Spot on, a great collection of fun “rogues & ribaldry” tales. The first Leiber collection I bought had the stories from “Thieves’ House” in Swords Against Death through “Lean Times in Lankhmar” from the next volume. That stretch encapsulates some quality Lankhmar.

  2. Thank you, and yes that it does – that bit may very well be the essential part of the series, and “Lean Times in Lankhmar” surely is among everyone’s favourite Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories (definitely is among mine) and makes the Terry Pratchett connection even more blatant.

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