What I’m Reading: Fritz Leiber – Knight and Knave of Swords

The seventh and final volume in Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser series, containing stories from the late seventies and eighties. This one was a bit different than the previous for me, insofar as it is the only volume I had never read before, as it had not been released (or indeed, written) yet the last time I read through the series. Knight and Knave of Swords is generally considered the series’ low point, and with very good reason – while Swords and Ice Magic was rather mediocre, this one is outright bad, and if it wasn’t for my stubbornly insisting on reading the series in its entirety I probably would not have finished it.

The volume’s basic structure is similar to Swords and Ice Magic – it starts off with some shorter stories (not quite vignettes this time, though, even though there is not really that much more happening) and then ends with what one might consider as either a long novella or a short novel. Noteworthy about Knight and Knave of Swords is that it is the longest volume in this series – it is not quite a doorstopper but it has a significantly higher page count than any of the previous books. And this turns out to be not a good thing at all – where Leiber’s storytelling used to be lean and slink, propelled by action and humor,  here its most characteristic feature is a huge amount of bloat, the stories’ narrative  momentum getting lost in lacklustre descriptions of pointless detail – Knight and Knave of Swords reads like a re-imagining of Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser as done by Robert Jordan.

The three introductory stories are bad enough in that respect, but things take an even worse turn in the concluding novella “The Mouser Goes Below”. All the colour and wit, all the elegance and ironic touches that made this series so special seem to have been drained from Leiber’s prose, leaving a dry, dull husk that is all the more painful to read for those extremely rare moments when there is a brief sparkle of its former brilliance (like when it turns out that the Fafhrd’s child is actually closer in character to the Grey Mouser and vice versa). But those moments are so few and far between as to be almost non-existent, and the rest of the novella resembles nothing more than one of the pointless vignettes from Swords and Ice Magic – blown up to over 200 pages. Our supposed protagonists are even more passive than in the previous volume’s “Frost Monstreme / Rime Isle”, they are just being pushed around like pawns and this time there is not even any real purpose behind it, the whole novella reads like one long exercise in utter futility.

Even though after reading Swords and Ice Magic I did not go with any high expectations into this volume, Knight and Knave of Swords still managed to be a huge disappointment and I cannot imagine even the most diehard fan of the series deriving any enjoyment from this volume. Even the attempts at fan service (Fafhrd’s daughter and the Grey Mouser’s son) fall woefully flat and the whole thing is a dreary mess that leaves a bad taste in one’s mouth. I had to thumb through some of the early volumes to get rid of it and to remind myself that this used to be a wonderful series. Knight and Knave of Swords is emphatically going to get skipped in any further re-readings of Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser I might be undertaking.

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

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2 comments

  1. Hello Heloise – I’ve found your rereading of this series very interesting, because I hadn’t ever heard of it before, so it’s been a little window onto a new slice of the fantasy genre. What a shame that the last book didn’t live up to expectations – but as you say, now that you know roughly what happens in the end, you can just ignore it in the future 🙂 Do you have any more fantasy challenges lined up?!

  2. Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser is not a series in the way the Lymond Chronicles are; i.e. not a planned sequence with an overarching plot, but just a bunch of stories, novellas and one novel that happen to have the same protagonists, so you can basically stop anywhere you want without missing much – and in particular not with this volume.

    I haven’t come across any interesting challenges yet, Fantasy-themed or otherwise, but I’ll be likely be reading some more classical Fantasy next year – I was thinking about giving Michael Moorcock’s Elric a shot (another multi-volume Sword & Sorcery series), will definitely be reading something by Guy Kavriel Kay and really would like to re-read Little, Big again. I tend to be very impulsive in selecting my reading, so none of that is written in stone. 😛

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