Welcome to the next installment in my Retro Reviews! This time, we’re looking at a man who really carried the flame of Sword & Sorcery forwards, helping create a genre out of an idea, and the duo he used to do so – Fritz Leiber writing Fahfrd and the Grey Mouser. TL:DR review time
There once was a pair of rogues
For whom adventure was always in vogue
They roamed far and near
Yet still felt cold fear
When they saw their patrons collogue
Yeah, I’d never heard of the word collogue before either. Onwards!
What’s it all about?
Well it’s a collection of ten short stories so don’t expect a coherent arc. It doesn’t even cover how Fahfrd and the Grey Mouser met, which is mostly covered in Swords And Deviltry, but those stories are mostly post my retro-period and these stories are mostly pre. Anyway, Fahfrd is a barbarian turned thief, the Grey Mouser is a wizard’s apprentice turned thief, he’s a cynical romantic and he’s a romantic cynic – or is it the other way around – and they do fantasy adventurer-thievy shit in the magical world of Nehwon.
How readable is it?
There is very little archaic about the prose and I don’t think it would trip up a modern reader all that much, if at all. It is often very heavy on the descriptive stuff as it’s all about that air of weird adventure, but no more than a weird adventure today I’d say.
Is it any good though?
It’s not bad. The only real problem is that I’ve read Swords And Deviltry which I found notably better, having far more of a psychological element than its predecessors. I think this would still stand as something of a highwater mark for collections of fantasy adventure short stories, which admittedly isn’t something the genre has been super bothered about post 1970 or so. It is mildly ironic that someone can very much like sword & sorcery but be somewhat against short stories, but that’s what I am and it makes me a conflicted audience for this.
Some of the short stories are very good. Claws In The Night and The Sunken Land both stuck with me. I wish I could remember The Price of Pain-Ease better. The Howling Tower didn’t land for me if I remember right. In general, for someone looking for adventure, for weird, for sword & sorcery, I’d say this remains very much relevant.
How Important is this book?
There are numerous ways the Fahfrd & Grey Mouser stories, the start of which is contained in this book, were important. One of them is simply in holding a torch. There wasn’t a lot of sword & sorcery published after Weird Tales ended and Howard and Ashton Smith were done with it until the 1960s and a revival began. If you are looking for works in that field in that time, then other than Vance and the first flourishing of the Dying Earth, Leiber and his creations are very close to being it. Would sword & sorcery have come back without Leiber? Probably, but maybe not.
In any case, he did not only help preserve, he influenced too. He was a big influence on Tad Williams, and is also a named influence on Michael Moorcock, Raymond E. Feist, R.A. Salvatore, and Tim Powers. Other authors who’ve not named him have probably been influenced a little by him too. Pratchett riffs off of him in The Colour of Magic and Ankh-Morpork perhaps owes something to Lankhmar, maybe the first great fantasy city. Eddings has creations that seem to show a clear debt too. He was maybe the single greatest direct pulp influence on that explosion of commercially successful fantasy in the 80s and what’s more, maybe the first to make a single major city into a stage for his stories. Out of all the retro reviews so far, I think in terms of most influence to least recognition, Leiber might be up there with Hope Mirrlees as the ‘winner’.
What about the author?
The son of thespians, Leiber bounced between acting and academia for most of his young life. He also has a spell as an aircraft quality inspector in World War 2 after deciding beating fascism mattered more than his pacifism and studied to be a priest before eventually becoming a full time writer. He went a bit off the rails after his first wife, Jonquil Stevens, died in 1969, but eventually got his life back together and out of poverty. His writing always had elements of autobiography – Fahfrd and the Grey Mouser are based on himself and his friend Harry Otto Fischer, while Our Lady of Darkness drew heavily on Jonquil’s death. He wrote widely among the spec fic genres and was very popular in his time. All in all, he seems to have just been a nice, talented guy who was very good with words and stories.
If sword and sorcery is even remotely your thing, this should be on your radar. I feel like most fans of such a thing will know of this book, but retro reviews exist to reach the others. It’s still good. So read it. Or better yet, go read Swords And Deviltry. It makes more sense in the continuity and I think it’s better. Then come back and read this.