Monday 11 June 2012

Review: Swords Against Death

Swords Against Death by Fritz Leiber (1970)

The second volume in the Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser Saga sees Leiber's heroes wandering the world as they try to forget their first and greatest loves who died and were avenged in the city of  Lankhmar.  After travelling the world of Nehwon and many adventures, including meeting their spiritual mentors Sheebla the Eyeless One and Ningauble of the Seven Eyes, they return to Lankhmar where greater adventures await.

Like the first volume, Swords and Devilry, Death is a collection of stand-alone stories that still hold together by sharing common themes and chronology, but where the first volume suffers by needing to be a retroactive introduction to our heroes, Death has them up and running with some of Leiber's best writing–especially the remarkable "Bazaar of the Bizarre".  Yet what is most remarkable is that these short stories manage is what short stories aren't supposed to do.  Short stories are about the "gag".  Since they are short, such pieces must use an unexpected twist at the end or suspense or the characters experiencing some revelation.  yet in Death,  Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser undergo actual character development; something that shouldn't be possible, yet in Leiber's skilled hands is.

The other thing that sets apart the stories in this volume is their mixture of broad humour with a truly unsettling sense of the weird and horrible, such as when the pair are bewitched into travelling across half of Nehwon to face a death trap or battling deadly, thieving birds controlled by a girl who may either be insane or a reborn priestess of an ancient goddess.  Though the stories are humourous, they are never comedies and always have a core of iron to them that points like a compass to the macabre.

And mixed with this, and what really makes the series work are the barbarian Fafhrd and the nimble adventurer the Gray Mouser.  In them, Leiber has created a story of friendship and camaraderie that is only equaled by the pens of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle or Patrick O'Brien.  Seeing this double act at work is a delight as they save one another from peril, scold the other for his idiocy and face life's adventures back to back–unless there's a comely wench to be chased, of course.

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