Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Review: Swords and Deviltry

Swords and Deviltry by Frtiz Leiber (1970)

In the smog-laden warrens of fabled Lankhmar, a strangely civilised barbarian holding a broadsword meets a little man with a little man dressed in grey flashing a rapier.  What makes the meeting notable is that it occurs while fighting off the bodyguards of the two men they've both been robbing by coincidence.

And so begins the saga of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser; one of the most famous duos in the Sword and Sorcery genre.  But this being on the world of Nehwon, the beginning comes at the end.

Swords and Deviltry is the first volume of the collected short stories and novels by Fritz Leiber concerning the career of these two rogues, thieves and mismatched (or is it perfectly matched?) heroes.  Composed of three novellas and an introductory vignette, it tells of Fafhrd and the Gray Mousers origins and how they came to be comrades.  It's also the weakest of the books because they don't actually meet up until the final novella, "Ill Met in Lankhmar".  This story is the strongest of the three and though it's uncomfortably self-concious in places, it's mixture of adventure, wry humour, and moments of pure horror made it well-deserving of the Nebula and Hugo awards that it scooped up.  Unfortunately, in order to get to it, we must wade through a story of Fafhrd's boyhood in the Cold Wastes (a land so grim, strait-laced and henpecked that it could be mistaken for Minnesota) and a second tale of when the Gray Mouser was a magician's apprentice called Mouse.  Both of these are acceptable stories and the plots do tie in nicely with the dénouement of "Ill Met in Lankhmar", but Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser only really work as characters when they are together.  As solo characters, they just aren't up to the job.  It's a bit like those Mel Smith/Gryf Rhys Jones films of the '80s where the comedians spend nine-tenths of the screen time apart to the disappointment of the audience.

Still, I wouldn't pass up this volume, if only on the grounds of completeness.  The last story of how our heroes, at the urging of their girlfriends and the connivance of several jugs of wine, take on the dreaded thieves guild (and their even more dreaded wizard) and come out both winning and losing.

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