SWORDS AND DEVILTRY
by Fritz Leiber
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Swords and Deviltry, the first book in Fritz Leiber’s classic Fafhrd and Gray Mouser series, is comprised of three stories, “The Snow Women,” “The Unholy Grail,” and “Ill Met in Lankhmar.” The first and last stories were written in 1970 with the middle one originally published in 1962. The book as a whole serves as an original story, both individually and collectively for his two main characters who were initially introduced in 1947 in the story “Adept’s Gambit.”
“The Snow Women” is Fafhrd’s origin story, told about a teen-aged barbarian living in the snowy wastelands of the North. Still seen as a boy, Fafhrd lives with his mother, a vindictive woman who leads a group of women intent on cursing any men and strangers who they feel have intruded on their lives and powers. Despite his status with the clan, Fafhrd has gotten his girlfriend, Mara, pregnant. His life seems on track to follow in the paths of generations before him. However, Fafhrd also has an obsession with the idea of the “civilization” in the south and yearns to experience it. The arrival of a traveling show with its star Vlana, gives him a chance to change his destiny.
There is a lot going on in “The Snow Women” and Fafhrd is only aware of bits and pieces of it as they apply to him. Leiber only hints at some of what it going on to the reader, although he provides enough detail that the reader can piece together much of the background as Fafhrd tries to help Vlana, who he learns is to be sold into sexual slavery, deal with his mother’s wrath, Mara’s pregnancy, the lack of respect he receives from the tribe, and his own desire to see more of the world. Although Leiber has been writing about Fafhrd for more than thirty years at the time this story was originally published, the character seems incomplete in these surroundings, very different from the barbarian who would feature is other stories. Although “The Snow Women” was nominated for both the Hugo and Nebula Awards, Leiber chose to withdraw the story from consideration for both awards.
The Grey Mouser receives his own solo origin story in “The Unholy Grail,” although the story is more that of his potential girlfriend, Ivrian, than his own. Ivrian’s father, Duke Janarrl, has a hatred of all magic and the story opens with him having destroyed the hut of the wizard Glavas Rho, who has been teaching Ivrian and Mouse magic. Mouse survives and vows vengeance against Janarrl, but is captured when Ivrian inadvertently leads her father’s forces to him, just as she had accidentally betrayed Glavas Rho. While Mouse is being tortured, he is able to focus a spell against Janarrl using Ivrian as a sort of lens and the two are able to escape following her father’s death.
The story suffers from trying to shoehorn Mouse into the protagonist role while it seems like Ivrian is more appropriate for that spot. Leiber occasionally jumps between the two of them, causing parts of the story to seem disjointed. Mouse seems to be more developed in this story than Fafhrd is in “The Snow Women,” although the story doesn’t quite work, demonstrating that the two characters really are part of a whole.
Although Leiber had begun writing about Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser in 1936, he didn’t publish the story of how they met until 1970. “Ill Met in Lankhmar,” which won the Nebula and Hugo Awards, offers a full-fledged story of the pair as they have arrived in Lankhmar with their lovers, Vlana and Ivrian. The two both coincidentally attack Fissif and Slevyas, members of the Thieves’ Guild and rather than turn on each other recognize one another as kindred spirits. They decide to share their loot and rejoin Ivrian and Vlana to celebrate. The celebration gives the Grey Mouser the idea to break into the Thieves’ Guild and he and Fafhrd leave the women behind, managing to make it only so far before they are discovered. Upon escaping, they find that their lovers have been killed in retaliation for the earlier attack on Fissif and Slevyas.
Unlike the earlier stories which don’t’ feel quite right, “Ill Met in Lankhmar” has all the elements that really make up a story about Leiber’s duo. Although both new to the city, it feels right for them to be in Lankhmar’s winding, crime-ridden streets. The Thieves’ Guild plays an important role as does malevolent magic. Robbery, revenge, and ill-considered larks are par for the course. Naturally, it helps that Leiber has been defining their adventures for decades, but after the solo outings which open Swords and Deviltry, “Ill Met in Lankhmar” brings all the elements together for a satisfying ending, pointing the way towards their subsequent adventures.
|Induction||The Snow Women|
|The Unholy Grail||Ill Met in Lankhmar|
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