What I’m Reading: Fritz Leiber – Swords and Ice Magic

My Fafhrd and Grey Mouser read-through is nearing its end – Swords and Ice Magic is the sixth and penultimate volume and differs from the previous ones in having been first published after a seven year hiatus and collecting stories written in the seventies. It is generally considered to mark a decline in quality for the series, and indeed the volume is not off to a good start.

It begins with a series of vignettes, similar to those Leiber used in earlier volumes to embed his stories into some kind of coherent continuity by connecting previously published works. The earlier vignettes weren’t exactly successful for the most part, and the ones in Swords and Ice Magic, having not even that bridging purpose, seem entirely pointless. They also continue a tendency that was already observable in Swords of Lankhmar, namely of Fafhrd’s and the Grey Mouser’s adventures becoming increasingly over-the-top to the point where, in this volume, they cross the border into the outright silly. Now, I don’t mind humorous Fantasy, and this series always had an underlying comical strand, but it used to be just that – underlying. But it is very much on the surface in these vignettes, and, at least as far as I’m concerned, not to their benefit.

The bulk of the volume, however, consists of the connected novelette “The Frost Monstreme” and novella “Rime Isle” – together, they’re long enough to form a short novel, and indeed its structure (first part mostly taking place on sea, then a longer part on land) is rather reminiscent of Swords of Lankhmar. Different from that novel, though, and in very sharp contrast to the preceding stories in this volume, humor is almost completely absent from “Rime Isle” and its companion story – in fact, they are by a wide margin the grimmest tales in the whole Fafhrd and Grey Mouser series so far.

There are reasons for this darker tone: one of them is – as Leiber emphasizes on several occasions in particular during “The Frost Monstreme” – that Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser have left their youth behind them and entered middle age, that their carefree lives are over and they are bearing the burden of responsibility now. Which, as a concept, is very fascinating – usually, you  might see Sword & Sorcery gain in power but you never quite get the feeling that they’re actually aging and changing (King Conan would be a case in point here, I think, and most heroes in this genre do not even get that much development). There is also a sense here, which was largely absent in the earlier stories, that the actions of our heroes have consequences, and Fafhrd in particular will have to pay a steep price for his heroism. So everything seems set for “Frost Monstreme / Rime Isle” becoming one of the best stories in the series…. and yet they aren’t. They are good stories, mind you, and definitely an improvement over the vignettes opening this volume, but they come nowhere near earlier highlights of the series like “Bazaar of the Bizarre” or “Lean Times in Lankhmar.”

One reason for this is, I think, that the exuberance and sheer fun was just a huge part of what made this series what it is, and while toning that down towards a more realistic and darker attitude might be commendable in principle, it also cuts into what is essential for the enjoyment of this particular series. A grown-up Fafhrd and a responsible Grey Mouser might be more mature and better people, but they are also a lot less fun to hang out with. Another problem is that for heroes, they both have a surprisingly small amount of agency – and that’s even before the big reveal at the end when it turns out that everything that happened was part of an elaborate plot set in motion by a devious mastermind and that everyone was only a pawn in his scheme. Both Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser barely seem to act in those stories, but only ever re-act and generally are markedly more passive than we are used to (which of course might tie into the growing-up motif). Again, this might enhance  realism, but at the cost of putting a dampener on the reader’s enjoyment, too. And finally, a smaller and more personal niggle – Leiber is up to his dimension-crossing ways again as he was way back in “Adept’s Gambit”. This time it is two gods from our world crossing over into Lankhmar, and while watching a tired, pedophile Odin and a fiery, manipulative Loki is not completely without appeal, overall it’s mostly irritating.

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

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