by Michael Shea

Darkside Press


351pp/$60.00/1982, reprinted 1994

Reviewed by Steven H Silver

This review will be slightly different from other reviews posted on this site. I'm reviewing a specific edition of Shea's World Fantasy Award winning novel and plan to discuss the physical book as well as Shea's text.

Physically, Darkside Press has published a leatherbound (demon-skin bound according to their "Statement of Limitation") volume limited to 440 copies, only 400 of which are offered for sale. Inside the textured leather covers, the volume contains four black and white illustrations from the pen of artist Alan M. Clark, a pair of endpaper maps by Linda Cecere and an introduction by Tim Powers. The "Statement of Limitation" includes, of course, the number of the book as well as the autographs of all four contributors. So far, an extremely nice package. In fact, as far as packaging is concerned, I found only one drawback. The editors at Darkside Press elected to use a typefont which made use of ligatures between several letter-pairings, most notably st and sk. Although this archaicism is in keeping with the style of the book and Shea's writing, it can, at times, detract from the text itself.

Of course, when you come right down to it, the text is the most important part of the book. I know my wife doesn't understand why I enjoy a specific edition of a book or the smell of a leatherbinding, just as I know many people who feel that having the text on the computer is just as good as having the artefact of the book in one's hands.

Nifft the Lean consists of the first four stories concerning Shea's thief. A fifth adventure, "The Mines of Behemoth" is currently being serialized in Algis Budrys's SF magazine Tomorrow. Each of the four stories included in this collection stand on their own and tell of an adventure Nifft takes. In this respect, Shea's hero stands in the company of Fritz Leiber's "Fafhrd & Grey Mouser" cycle and Michael Moorcock's "Elric of Melniboné" cycle. However, while Moorcock and Leiber's cycles can be read either individually or as a whole, Shea's Nifft stories do not gain by being read as a novel. Unlike Leiber's characters, who Nifft resembles most as far as style is concerned, Nifft does not grow as the stories progress. He, and his companions, are characters, but not people. They don't change as the book progresses.

The strength of these tales, therefore, is in Shea's writing style. As I commented, these stories most resemble the style of Fritz Leiber. Both of these series are gothic in that they place an emphasis on description. Shea may be even better at setting his scene than Leiber. Although none of Shea's locales become quite as realistic as the winding streets of Lankhmar, Shea also spends much less time in any place than Leiber did in his creation. Instead, Shea works at setting much of his scene through introductory passages to each story. Shea's conceit is that these four stories, some of which were written by Nifft, others by friends, have been collected as a postmortem collection by Nifft's comrade, the scholar Shag Margold. These prefatory remarks, as much as anything within the tales themselves, flesh out the world Nifft and company inhabit.

Given the Gothic aspect of Shea's writing, it should come as no surprise that there is actually very little action in Nifft the Lean The few battles are described briefly, with more emphasis placed on the mood surrounding the combatants and spectators. In some places, this causes the stories to move a little slowly. However, anything else would have been out of place in the type of story Shea is telling.

If you are looking for a swords and sorcery style adventure, I would suggest looking elsewhere, perhaps Eddings, Feist, Jordan or Brooks. If you are looking for good characterization, I would recommend any of a number of books before suggesting Nifft the Lean, but if you are looking for mood and description, a stylish tour de force, this book will definitely satisfy your cravings.

Table of Contents

Come Then, Mortal, We Will Seek Her Soul 13
The Pearls of the Vampire Queen 77
The Fishing of the Demon Sea 125
The Goddess in Glass 275

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