What I’m Reading: Fritz Leiber – The Swords of Lankhmar

The Swords of Lankhmar, fifth volume in Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and Gray Mouser books, stands out among the others by being the only novel in the series. It has often been remarked upon that this form is not really suited to the tales Leiber tries to tell, and I am finding myself in agreement with this. Not that The Swords of Lankhmar wasn’t a fun to read, but it does drag a bit in places, in particular during the sea voyage described in its first part which is almost a standalone tale.

Most of that voyage is given to Fafhrd’s and the Gray Mouser’s courting of a female passenger, trying to outdo each other in gaining her affections and generally behaving in a way that is very reminiscent of adolescent teenagers. This is somewhat mitigated by the sheer outrageousness of their behaviour which raises suspicion that maybe they are not quite serious about it all and only play-acting to pass the time on a boring sea-voyage, but even so it does appear rather out of character – while this is certainly not the first time that our two protagonists have fallen for a pretty face I cannot remember any previous instance where they forgot themselves quite as much as here with Hesvit.

Although I have to admit that I found Hesvit rather enjoyable myself – it is clear pretty early on that she is up to no good and one of the novel’s bad guys, and while she does not exactly have a lot of character depth beyond her being evil for evil’s sake, what there is is quite fascinating, mysterious and aloof, always dancing just out of everyone’s grasp and generally a very colourful villain who gives our heroes – the Mouser in particular – quite the run for their money.

The novel becomes markedly more lively from its second third onwards, when the location shifts to Lankhmar. Or at least the Mouser’s location shifts, for once again our protagonists are going separate ways for most of the story. Unlike previous instances, though, it has to be said that the split in The Swords of Lankhmar is not quite symmetrical – while Fafhrd’s long detour towards Lankhmar is mostly devoid of events and, while fun to read,  is only marginally related to the central plot, the Gray Mouser has all the excitement, magic and adventure in his chapters. He really steals the spotlight from Fafhrd this time round and The Swords of Lankhmar is very much the Gray Mouser’s novel – which, in a way, is even fitting, seeing how the novel’s main antagonists are rats.

The Swords of Lankhmar is the most fanciful instalment in the Fafhrd and Gray Mouser series (or the silliest, if you are feeling less generous) – with people shrinking down to the size of and dressing up as rats, rats growing to the size of men and getting into fencing duels and lots of other bizarre and colourful shenanigans, the reader at times almost feels like having strayed into a Sword & Sorcery version of E.T.A. Hoffmann’s Nußknacker und Mäusekönig. And maybe this is another reason why this novel made me once again think a lot of Terry Pratchett – at times, The Swords of Lankhmar seems to switch entirely into comical mode and Leiber seems to play it entirely for laughs, even more so than in stories like “Lean Times in Lankhmar” where the sharp satirical thrust kept things from becoming merely quirky, humoristic Fantasy. Which is not a bad thing in and of itself, but I have to admit that at times I rather missed the realistic edge that usually even the  most outré and over the top Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories have somewhere. There is almost no sense of menace in this novel, and the villains, while bizarre and fascinating never really come across as threatening.

This installment of Fafhrd and Gray Mouser is a bit of a mixed bag, then; it does not quite live up to the best volumes in the series but still is very enjoyable to read. The Swords of Lankhmar is also the final volume of the original series, the remaining two volumes are later additions and everyone seems to agree that they mark a distinct drop in quality. Only one way to find whether that is true or not, I suppose…

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

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