Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Swords in the Mist by Fritz Leiber

One bad novella spoils the bunch
Swords in the Mist, originally published in 1968, is a collection of sword-and-sorcery fiction by sci-fi author Fritz Leiber. This is the third in a series of books featuring Leiber’s recurring characters Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. The former is a big, burly swordsman of Nordic extraction; the latter is a sly and slender thief known for his speed, agility, and cunning. I first read Swords in the Mist back in junior high. It inspired fond enough memories that when I discovered Open Road Media was offering inexpensive ebooks of this series, I decided to reread it for nostalgia’s sake. Four of the stories in this book were previously published between 1947 and 1964 in Fantastic Science Fiction Stories magazine. The other two entries are brief interludes written by Leiber expressly for this collection. They serve as segues between the meatier tales, in an attempt to establish some continuity to the duo’s adventures.

Although one of the stories is set in ancient times on Earth, most of the selections in the Swords series take place in the fictional world of Nehwon and it’s main city of Lankhmar. The best story in this volume is “Lean Times in Lankhmar,” which I still recalled fondly from having read it over 30 years ago. Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser take a temporary break from each other’s company, during which the Mouser hires his services out to a mobster while Fafhrd becomes a religious acolyte in the service of an obscure god named Issek of the Jug. Leiber introduces us to Lankhmar’s Street of the Gods, a sort of spiritual free market where deities compete for popular appeal and donations of alms. Though on the surface this series may resemble Robert E. Howard’s Conan books, Leiber takes a much more tongue-in-cheek approach to the genre. “Lean Times in Lankhmar” is a great example of his ability to combine sword-clashing action with hilarious humor.

“The Cloud of Hate” and “When the Sea King’s Away,” though not masterpieces, are also good examples of Leiber’s skill with this sort of fare. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for the collection’s final entry. Fully half of the book is taken up by its worst selection, a novella-length work entitled “Adept’s Gambit.” This was the earliest written of the selections, and Leiber’s sense of humor had apparently not yet fully developed. While in the other stories he pokes fun at the cliches of the fantasy genre, here he wholeheartedly embraces them. The two heroes find themselves the victims of a curse that causes every woman they kiss to turn into pigs or snails. This leads them on a quest to find the sorcerer responsible. Of course, they must gather a laundry list of mystical objects along the way. Though it starts out comical, in the end Leiber takes this one far too seriously. His prose is overly verbose, piled high with so many gratuitous adjectives that at times his writing resembles a round of Mad Libs. Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser end up becoming sidekicks in their own book as one of the supporting characters goes off on an interminably long back story. “Adept’s Gambit” is a bore to be endured rather than enjoyed.

The first half of Swords in the Mist brought back some pleasant memories of a brief youthful dalliance with Dungeons & Dragons. The second half, however, reminded me why my interest in the fantasy genre did not stick. Even so, Leiber’s stories are better than most. I’m unlikely to pursue this series any further, but there will always be a soft spot in my heart for Issek of the Jug.
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