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The First & Second Books of Lankhmar
Fritz Leiber
Victor Gollancz, 762 & 695 pages

Art: Chris Moore
The First Book of Lankhmar

Art: Chris Moore
The Second Book of Lankhmar
Fritz Leiber
Fritz Leiber was born in 1910 to parents who worked in the theatre. After studying psychology and physiology at the University of Chicago, he spent a year at a theological seminary. He worked as an editor for the Science Digest, and as an actor and drama teacher, before turning to writing. He is well known for his fantasy titles such as the Fafhrd and Gray Mouser series, Our Lady of Darkness, Conjure Wife, and "Gonna Roll the Bones," which appeared in Dangerous Visions and won both a Hugo and a Nebula. He is also the author of 1958 Hugo winner The Big Time, and other SF titles in the Change War series. Fritz Leiber died in 1992.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: The Wanderer
SF Site Review: The Dealings of Daniel Kesserich
Fritz Leiber Tribute Site
Fritz Leiber's Lankhmar
Fritz Leiber Bibliography

Past Feature Reviews
A review by William Thompson

Part of Gollancz's laudable Fantasy Masterworks series, one can only wish these reissues were more readily available in the United States (or that White Wolf's more finely produced four volume hardcover reissues under the Borealis logo of a few years back were yet in print). Combining all of Fritz Leiber's tales concerning his archetypal heroes, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, into two squat volumes, this offering continues a tradition of periodic reissues that have for the most part kept these popular stories in print, as well as in view of many contemporary readers who have never read the sequence, though should. Hopefully this latest reprint will bring a new audience and wider attention to this author's writing, of which these stories, while among some of his best, are arguably only the most readily accessible. As David Langford observes in The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, "the sheer variety of fine work which he produced over such a lengthy career [first published in 1939, and continuing through 1992] is remarkable,"1 and includes science fiction as well as horror, many of which are not presently in print. During his lifetime, Leiber won thirty awards that crossed over the genres, including six Hugos and four Nebulas. Outside of perhaps Mervyn Peake, few writers of fantasy fiction are more deserving of retrospective attention and acknowledgement.

Credited as the first to coin the term "sword and sorcery," Leiber originally obtained the idea for his duo from longtime friend, Harry Otto Fischer, in 1934. Arising out of an imaginative correspondence and play between friends (and bearing at times an admitted, if loose, resemblance to their creators), this seemingly mismatched team were to become one of the most influential and dearly loved protagonists of heroic fantasy fiction. Pairing a northern barbarian with an urbane, hedge wizard's acolyte, one could think perhaps of a no more unlikely couple, except the marriage of Mutt and Jeff, Stan and Oliver, proving once again "Three of a Perfect Pair." A keen mind in a berserker's body, Fafhrd became the brawn and calm to balance the Grey Mouser's creative if at times impulsive fancy. Of a larcenous turn, the two confederates match their differing if mutual skills to thievery and mercenary employment, usually with serio-comedic results. Written with verve and wit, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser became one of the most original and enduring teams to grace fantasy fiction.

Of almost equal importance as a character is the city of Lankhmar and the world of Nehwon (an anagram for no when) itself. A pastiche of dark alleyways, bazaars and temples, ruled by caprice and shadowy guilds, amoral Lankhmar is a fetid blend of the ordinary and exotic, opulence and slum, a metropolis of dark Dickensian proportions bordering industrial parks over which hang perpetual clouds of smog, where the medieval mirrors the modern. The realm of Nehwon possesses portals to parallel universes, places where time blurs. Immortal beings and ancient gods still roam the world, equally powerful if incompetent wizards interfere with the affairs of men (especially our two heroes), and Death lays snares to entrap the legendary duo. Fans of Brust or Pratchett will recognize precursors for Dragaera and Adrilankha, Discworld and Ankh-Morpork. Other influences can be found in the recent work of China Miéville or John Marco, reinforcing Raymond Feist's claim that "most fantasy writers, if asked, admit that Fritz Leiber is our spiritual father..."2 Acknowledgement of Leiber's inheritance comes from authors as diverse and influential as Michael Moorcock and Neil Gaiman.

Leiber is also recognized as one of the genre's more literate and earlier prose stylists. At times his use of assonance and alliteration become a bit too florid, at least to modern ears, but when curbed by more control and restraint, he can turn some of the more beautiful passages and phrasings to be found in speculative fiction. His picaresque themes and settings are wonderfully rendered and varied, and if any complaint could be lodged against his inventions and fancy, it would be that his imagination can at times become almost too extravagant, stretching the bounds of credulity. However, as nearly all his stories are leavened with a marvelous sense of humor directed at both his heroes as well as social and literary pretense, one is rarely seduced into taking his tales or commentary too seriously. And, if one looks closely enough, one realizes that moments of apparent silliness often carry a pointed understatement of allegory. Leiber was additionally one of the first writers of fantasy to depict his characters as flawed, sometimes seriously, revealing the full range of human foibles that, as in real life, can vacillate, often depending upon circumstances, between alternate strengths and weaknesses. Finally, there is a decided erotic tone to many of the tales, and while Leiber occasionally missteps, as in the late story "The Mouser Goes Below," into adolescent male fantasy, for the most part his eroticism is balanced by deprecating wit and barbs directed at any form of hubris, sexual or otherwise.

The First Book of Lankhmar (volume 18 of Fantasy Masterworks) offers the initial four Swords collections, including some of Leiber's strongest stories. Swords and Deviltry provides early background for the two heroes, as well as their famous and wonderfully told meeting in "Ill Met in Lankhmar." Additionally, "The Snow Women" remains a personal favorite, and early on contains, in my opinion, some of Leiber's best prose. Swords Against Death contains some less successful and uneven work among its ten short stories, with "The Unholy Grail," "The Circle Curse," and "The Price of Pain-Ease" only sketchily conceived and less strongly written than other work in the collection. However "Thieves House" offers a delightful comedy of errors, and "Bazaar of the Bizarre," with its thinly disguised critique of contemporary marketing, is deservedly one of Leiber's most highly regarded short stories, and I suspect a source of inspiration for any number of latter day storytellers, from Pratchett to Rod Serling. Swords in the Mist is highlighted by several excellent short stories, including the duo's humorous falling out over love in "Lean Times in Lankhmar," a jaundiced parody of religion in which the Mouser sells his sword arm to a "rising racketeer of religion," while Fafhrd renounces the material world and joins the impoverished street ministry of a minor and neglected deity, Issek the Jug (one of the gods in Lankhmar as opposed to the more mysterious and ominous gods of Lankhmar). Other tales provide important introductions: the portentous meeting with Ourph the Mingol in "Their Mistress, the Sea," or the initial appearance of Grave's triple goddess in "When the Sea-King's Away." The only relative weak spot resides in the loosely linked stories represented by "The Adept's Gambit," nine short narratives written over a span of thirty years and therefore perhaps not surprisingly evidencing a degree of inconsistency in both style and presentation. The concluding collection, Swords Against Wizardry, are among the author's best, highlighted by dalliance with immortals in "Stardock" and the plights and gripes of fatherly and brotherly (not forgetting slave girls) love in the underworld "Lords of Quarmall," in which playing both sides off the middle receives excessive expression.

The Second Book of Lankhmar (volume 24) contains two brief novels as well as eleven short stories. The first of the two novels, and the more famous, is The Sword of Lankhmar. The best fable of human/rodent relationships since the "Pied Piper of Hamlin," Leiber creates an below-ground and ratty reflection of Lankhmar Above when a potion given to the Mouser to aid in the investigation of a plague of rats instead shrinks our hero to rodent size. While this might appear a notable advantage for prying into the affairs of ratdom, a serious problem -- and high jinks -- ensue when the Mouser becomes besotted by an alluring human/rat hybrid. Unfortunately, four of the eight short stories that form Swords and Ice Magic are among the series' weakest, "Beauty and the Beasts" and "The Bait" being particularly insubstantial, though the ephemeral quality of these tales is offset somewhat by the more consequential character of "The Frost Monstreme" and "Rime Island," preludes to the three short stories included in the final collection, The Knight and Knave of Swords. Together, these five tales represent a departure from Lankhmar and the duo's earlier adventures, representing not only a change of locality but tone and organization as well. More linear and chronologically ordered than Leiber's earlier wide-ranging tales, these five stories form a cohesive and closely linked narrative in which the heroes attempt to retire, yet find themselves forced to rescue Rime Island not only from an invasion of roving Mingols, but a family dispute between the gods Odin and Loki. While the appearance of these last deities lack the delightful individuality and idiosyncrasies of Leiber's earlier (and later) pantheon, and a more unfettered spirit of adventure and imaginative fancy may to some seem gone, these are nonetheless strongly written if somewhat different tales, more tightly focused and plotted than his earlier work. Additionally, recognition of the duo's aging lends an added dimension to Leiber's characterization, further contributing to the author's persistent willingness to deromanticize his heroes.

In certain respects I wish Leiber had ended his series here, though the last short story of the five, "The Curse of the Smalls and the Stars," certainly lacks any sense of closure. Instead, while settling in to retirement on Rime Island, the concluding novel (or novella, depending upon your definition), "The Mouser Goes Below, " sees our hero abducted through a subterranean portal back to the sewers below Lankhmar, as well as his past infatuation with the rat queen Hisvet. During a voyeuristic spying upon her while she dallies with one of her maids, the Mouser finds himself tormented by Death's sister, Pain. Sadly, this erotic interlude lacks the humor and punch of earlier sexual escapades, largely falling flat and seeming more prurient and pointlessly indulgent than tantalizing or clever, distracting from other, more substantially rendered elements of the narrative. The mixed result of this concluding novel is regrettable. Others may feel differently.

At his best, Fritz Leiber offers some of the most richly turned and descriptive narrative found anywhere in fantasy fiction, certain passages at times verging upon prose poetry. The characters of Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser are among the most authentic and influential of the genre: "two of the most delightful creations in the history of fantastic literature."3 Drawing deeply from an extravagant and literate imagination, it is difficult to locate peers that have matched Leiber's breadth of invention or contribution to the genre, let alone excelled him. One would be equally hard pressed, even at his lesser moments, to claim any of his work as worn or lacking in imaginative interest. And no greater accolade can be given than that of Michael Moorcock: "a writer who is... still the greatest of us all."4

These stories belong on the shelf of every fantasy reader -- more importantly, they deserve to be read.

1 John Clute and John Grant, eds., The Encyclopedia of Fantasy (New York: St. Martins, 1999), p. 574.
2 Fritz Leiber; introduction by Raymond Feist, Lean Times in Lankhmar
3 Fritz Leiber; introduction by Neil Gaiman, Return to Lankhmar (Clarkston, GA: White Wolf, 1997), p.15.
4 Fritz Leiber; introduction by Michael Moorcock, Ill Met in Lankhmar (Clarkston, GA: White Wolf, 1995), p.xi.

Copyright © 2002 William Thompson

William Thompson is a writer of speculative fiction. In addition to his writing, he is pursuing masters degrees in information science as well as history at Indiana University.

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