Swords and Deviltry by Fritz Leiber

(mild spoilers)

One of the interesting parts about delving into fantasy’s backlist is getting to see authors’ inspirations at work. When I delved into Swords and Deviltry, a collection of short stories that serves as the novel debut for Fritz Leiber’s heroic duo of the Grey Mouser and Fahfrd, and their dangerous home of Lankhmar, I got a ton of that.

It must be noted that interesting and good aren’t always the same thing. Sometimes a work’s impact can be lessened a great deal for relying heavily on the novelty of ideas that would go on to be very common. Emma Bull’s War for the Oaks is the first book that springs to mind for me here, but there’s doubtless others. Swords and Deviltry avoids that, but possibly more because of Sword & Sorcery being out of fashion than any intrinsic quality.

Certainly, there is a lot of inspiration to see here. Leiber took Howard’s notions of wild adventure and made them picaresque and urban, more grounded in the here and now yet more surreal at the same time. Lankhmar was arguably fantasy’s first great metropolis, and its thieves’ guild – a major antagonist here – one of the first of its kind. And while Sword & Sorcery might be out of fashion, nefarious derring do in cities is firmly in. Are authors like Scott Lynch and Fonda Lee, Peter McLean and MJ Kuhn, drawing from Leiber? Probably not all of them (although Lynch most definitely is by his own words), but you can see an evolution of fantasy thought there. And it’s very easy to imagine all of them having a Leiber influenced author in their writing DNA somewhere.

I’ve written a lot of words so far but without saying very much about the actual quality of things. It’s high. Swords and Deviltry consists of three short stories about how the Grey Mouser and Fahfrd left their homes and met each other in Lankhmar and like all good origin stories, it pays plenty of attention to the psychology of the individual. Fahfrd comes across as part-naive, part-sophisticated in his role as a barbarian dreaming of civilisation, resentful of his tribe’s ways; a cynical romantic. The Grey Mouser has a harder edge, a man trying to live a dream he doesn’t fit as a white magic wizard’s apprentice, and released from it by revenge; a romantic cynic. Together they are less about their contrasts than their multiplied force, as the thieves’ guild of Lankhmar finds out.

The quality of the action scenes matches that of the interior life; Leiber has an action movie appreciation of how to use scenery and circumstances to create something more than the everyday clash of steel vs steel. Leiber doesn’t go deep into many other characters but the few he does have their own motivations, desires, stories. Even the spear carriers have their own idiosyncrasies. They are not props for the adventure, and it’s that sense of overbrimming character that makes the adventure here. There’s no stage players spouting gilded lines, but a sense of flesh and blood doing what they must. I’d add a full half of the more fleshed out characters are women – often romantic interests, yes, but fleshed out nevertheless – and while the thieves’ guild is misogynistic and doesn’t admit women, that’s a big part of why it’s an antagonist. Not all of Leiber’s ideas about women will appeal today (and truth told I get the feeling he could be deliberately provocative, although not so much in this story), but they are there and they are important.

The life cycle of stories is a funny thing. They come, they go, then some of them bounce back at odd moments. Well, why not Fritz Leiber? Dodgy types in dodgier cities is in. Romantic cynicism is, perhaps, in; the fantasy mainstream cannot bring in itself to believe in the idealistic save in rare items, but nor is nihilistic in either. Fahfrd and the Grey Mouser won’t tickle the fancy of anyone looking for intrigue and politics, or thoughts about culture and identity, but if someone’s looking for some raw adventure that’s more than raw adventure, this seems as good a place to look as any.

4 thoughts on “Swords and Deviltry by Fritz Leiber

  1. Good write-up. It’s on my TBR list, and we’ll be doing a podcast episode on Swords and Deviltry in the new year. The DNA of modern fantasy would have been very different had it not been for Leiber.

    Liked by 1 person

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