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

Swords and Wizardry is the fourth volume in Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and Gray Mouser series, which means that I’m past the halfway point in my re-reading now. It contains only four stories, two long novellas and two short tales serving as introductions to them. It maybe deserves some notice that the first story, “In the Witch’s Tent” was written especially for this volume, thus presumably being one of the bridge vignettes like those encountered in previous volumes which were intended to provide a consistent chronology for all the story. What is interesting about this particular one is that it does not even attempt to do any bridging, even fails to make any mention at all of Fafhrd’s and the Gray Mouser’s excursion into our world in “Adept’s Gambit” from Swords in the Mist. I can only assume that Leiber himself was embarrassed by this whole world-and-dimension-switching mess and chose to just conveniently forget all about it.

The two shorter stories are quite a bit of fun, especially “The Two Best Thieves in Lankhmar” (not the two you are probably thinking of), but the meat and substance of this volume are the two novellas, “Stardock” and “The Lords of Quarmall”. For some reason this novel had sunk somewhat deeper into the quagmire of the past then the other volumes and I was not sure what to expect from this particular volume, but as it turned out, I enjoyed it a lot – sufficiently so that I will have to go back on what I said in a comment on my post on Swords Against Death – this fourth collection is part of the essential Fafhrd and Gray Mouser, too, if not for “Stardock”, then for “The Lords of Quarmall” which might just be my second-favourite Fafhrd and Gray Mouser story.

I strongly suspect that “Stardock” was at least partially inspired by the climbing of Zora Rach in E.R. Eddison’s The Worm Ouroboros (of which I happen to be a huge admirer). As good as Leiber’s writing is (when he is in top form, at least, and not just randomly turning nouns and verbs into adverbs and adjectives), it never comes anywhere near the resonant rhythms and mythopoetic imagery of Eddison’s prose. In consequence, you do not have mythic figures scaling the sublime heights of a region where man is not supposed to be, but just two guys climbing a rather oversized rock with a lot of snow and ice on it. Which does fit in with the irreverence and debunking that are generally characteristic for this series, but is not exactly suitable to make an extented mountain climb something interesting to read about. In other words. this novella drags a bit during its first half when it describes Fafhrd’s and the Gray Mouser’s ascent of Stardock in rather too much detail. Once they reach the summit, however, the story shakes off the ice it had been collecting during the climb and accelerates its glacial pacing to the fast-paced, hot-tempered words- and swordplay this series so excels at in its best moments.

“The Lords of Quarmall,” on the other hand, does not drag at all, and is in fact one of my favourite stories in the series. It is sheer brilliance from beginning to end – even though that beginning was not written by Leiber but hy one Harry Otto  Fischer who  apparently co-created Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser and the world of Nehwon as setting for a board game (anyone else thinking of Steven Erikson and Ian Esslemont here?). If you change the names and squint a bit, it almost reads like something written by Jack Vance, it has the bizarre setting and characters as well as the even bizarrer intrigues that are characteristic of many of that author’s works and would fit quite well into his Dying Earth setting. Those are just reminiscences however, and everything considered  the novella is very much Fritz Leiber’s own (I never would have suspected that the beginning was not by him either, and in fact do suspect that he might have edited or even rewritten Fischer’s original). On a side note, “The Lords of Quarmall” demonstrates once again how the friendship between the Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser shows itself strongest when they are going their separate ways, or even working (unknowingly, in this case) against each other; it’s quite astonishing, looking back on this and previous volumes, how many of the series’ high points have its protagonists work apart from each other and one can’t help but wonder what that tells us about male friendship. In any case, this novella is pure delight, from its imaginative setting and Leiber’s sparkling prose to its twisting plot and the eerie, decadent atmosphere that pervades it. It might very well be the morst bizarre story in the series so far, bordering on the outright surreal in  places, but still manages to keep it contained in a plot that for all its brisk speed still manages to take a few surprise turns along the way.

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

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