What I’m Reading: Fritz Leiber – Swords in the Mist

The next stop in my project of re-reading the whole of Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser books is Swords in the Mist, the third volume, which contains one lengthy early novella, three mid-period stories from the fifties and sixties, and two bridge vignettes Leiber wrote for this volume to bring his stories into some kind of continuity.

This collection contains what might very well be my favourite story in the series, “Lean Times in Lankhmar”. It probably is also the most satirical, even more so than “Bazaar of the Bizarre”, the barbs this time chiefly aimed at religion. Not only does that story have almost none of the usual Fantasy trappings, it also finds Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser working separately, even against each other, and seeing how their friendship persists and makes itself felt even when they are at cross-purposes with each other, is just one of the many delights this story provides the reader. The satire itself is rather mild, although I suppose your mileage may vary if you happen to be a deeply religious person – Leiber is unambiguously poking some fun at institutionalized religion here, the way a religion does become an institution, the role money plays in that, and the way belief can spring from the most unlikely of sources. If your are not offended by it, it is a very funny story indeed, and definitely confirms Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser as a major source for Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series.

That story alone might have made Swords in the Mist one of the best volumes in the series – if it was not for what must surely be one of the most blatant “What the hell was the author thinking?” moments of WTF-ery in all of Fantasy literature. I am, of course, referring the novella “Adept’s Gambit” (which takes up about  half of this volume) and the vignette leading up to it, “The Wrong Branch”. There, Leiber transports his heroes for absolutely no good reason that I was able to conceive of from Nehwon to our Earth. The story could just as have well taken place in Nehwon with just the change of a few names, instead we get an elaborate setup that is full of holes and inconsistencies (do they remember their previous lives or not? Leiber actually claims both in different places) and just does make any sense. The result is that the reader gets thrown off completely and spends the time they should be enjoying the novella with scratching their head wondering where that came from and what the hell Leiber was thinking. You can probably tell by now that I was majorly annoyed at this sudden, unmotivated shift, and it seems almost as if Leiber was somewhat embarrassed by it himself, at least he does not even attempt to explain how Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser got back to Nehwon, but just opens up the next volume in the series with them being back in their familiar world.

As for “The Adept’s Gambit” itself, it is an okay story, not one of the best in the series but not one of the worst either, with some lovely touches (like the curse that gets put on Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, transforming their lovers into pigs or snails), some padding (the chapters that tell the backstory do drag a bit) but overall a decent fun factor. Despite an excellent first half, Swords in the Mist does not quite live up to the previous volume, though – or indeed to the next one.

This post is part of Lurv A La Mode‘s Year of the Fantasy Classic Challenge.

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5 comments

  1. Very nice post. I just stumbled upon your weblog and wanted to say that I’ve really enjoyed surfing around your blog posts. In any case I will be subscribing to your feed and I hope you write again very soon!
    Mr. swords

  2. Thank you very much! The idea is to write a blog post on every book I have finished reading, but due to rampant laziness I’ve fallen several books behind and am trying to catch up. At the moment, there are two to three posts every week (not counting the William Elliott Whitmore video), and I hope I can keep that pace up.

  3. I couldn’t make it through “The Wrong Branch” myself, found it such a mess that I put the book down before getting to “Adept’s Gambit.” Which was infuriating, since “Lean Times” was a great start to things, and is my favorite Lankhmar tale.

  4. @ admiral.ironbombs – I suspect there must be some reason for this whole affair, but I cannot even guess at what it might be. I suppose you did not miss all that much by not reading “Adept’s Gambit”, a lot of people seem to hate with a passion, and I’m not exactly waxing enthusiastic about it either, but did not find a complete waste of time. Thankfully, things improve again considerably in Swords Against Wizardry which turned out to be a lot better than I remembered.

    @ victoriajanssen LOL, British Fantasy paperbacks from the 70s surely must have some of the ugliest covers ever; I still have some Moorcock volumes from back then that bring garish to an entirely new level. The covers of this edition of the Fafhrd and Gray Mouser series actually do depict scenes from the books, and yes, there actually is a sword-swinging octopus in one of the stories (not sure now whether it’s also orange, though)… makes one wonder just how much Leiber visualized what he was writing.

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