SWORDS AND ICE MAGIC
by Fritz Leiber
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Swords and Ice Magic, which collects eight stories of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser may at first seem like a welcome reversion to form after the novel The Swords of Lankhmar. Unfortunately, while it does include the novella "Rime Isle" and its immediate prequel, "The Frost Monstreme," is also includes several short stories which are hardly more than vignettes, none of which offer compelling insights into the adventures of the heroic duo.
In "The Sadness of the Executioner," the Nehwon god Death, sitting in his castle in the Shadowlands, must meet a quota to kill a certain number of people of various ranks. He chooses his victims arbitrarily and they die, no thought given to who they are, what they are doing, or if they have fate. The victims merely meet the description and caught Death's attention at the wrong time. For two heroes, he notices Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser and targets them for death. Through no actions of their own, they survive, thus setting up a recurring theme in the stories in Swords and Ice Magic in which there heroes have very little agency and also a vendetta Death has against them.
"Beauty and the Beasts" in a brief, two page, tale of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser as sexual predators, tracking a woman through the alleys of Lankhmar. Their intended victim, although they certainly don't think of her that way, has half her body white and the other half black, which proves to tie into her identity. While the heroes have demonstrated questionable sexual morals throughout the tales, this vignette is the most clear indication that they are not averse to rape, which Leiber presents in a matter of fact way without moral judgment.
"Trapped in the Shadowlands" continues Death's vendetta against the two heroes. After they have entered his realm, he can extend it to retain his hold on them. The two fumble around trying, without success, to escape his grasp, eventually to be rescued by the deus ex machina of Sheelba and Ningauble, their own appearances continuing the thread of lack of agency for the heroes.
Back in Lankhmar in "The Bait," Leiber has the two heroes both awaken from the dream of a girl and come close to battling each other over the possibility of acquiring her, even though she does not, in fact exist. The story continues the lecherous theme of "Beauty and the Beasts" in that only their own pleasure matters to the two characters. Just as Leiber has seemingly sapped any volition from Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser in the stories collected in Swords and Ice Magic, so, too, do the heroes not recognize any volition for other characters.
Death is not the only god who has his eye on the pair and in "Under the Thumbs of the Gods," three other Nehwonese gods turn their attention to them. Kos, who Fafhrd worships in the Cold Wastes as a youth, Issek of the Jug, for whom he was an acolyte in "Lean Times in Lankhmar," and Mog, who was once worshipped by the Gray Mouser, decide to avenge themselves on the former beleivers who have forsaken them. Their punishment for the characters comes in the form of a series of encounters with former lovers who feel spurned by Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, although it is not entirely clear if the encounters are real or illusory. The characters simply move between meetings and eventually refer to the three ignored gods, thereby satisfying the gods' need for recognition.
The final vignette, "Trapped in the Sea of Stars" sees Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser drifting in the southern ocean in a boat wondering about the cosmology of the Nehwon universe. The question the grography of the world and look at the stars and throw back and forth ideas about what they are looking at. While the story adds a quaint piece of philosophy to Leiber's tales, it doesn't really provide the characters with any real growth or action and they allow the world to guide them rather than taking a hand in any events.
All six of the preceding stories feel like filler as Leiber presents "The Frost Monstreme," a prologue to the last story in the volume, "Rime Island." In "The Frost Monstreme," Fafhrd and the Mouser are approached in Lankhmar by Cif and Afreyt, two representatives for the council on Rime Isle. They are concerned about a pending invasion of sea Mingols and the mechanations of a northern wizard named Khahkht. Concerned for the safety of their homeland, the two women hire Fafhrd and the Mouser to bring a dozen barbarians and a dozen thieves to the island to defend it. Setting out in two boats, they travel to Rime Isle, but along they way Khahkt manages to turn their own intentions against themselves and the two ships almost find themselves in battle against each other. The story refocuses Leiber's attention on the characters, allowing them to demonstrate their personalities and to take action, rather than simply allowed the events of the world to shape them.
The first six stories in the book take up one third its total length, and with "The Frost Monstreme" and "Rime Isle" clearly being sequential, they are really the meat of Swords and Ice Magic. In fact, those two stories have, at times, been published together as a single story. "Rime Isle" tells what happened to Fafhrd and the Mouser after they arrived in answer to Cif and Afreyt's summons and discovered their presence was not as desired as they had been led to believe. While previously, Leiber allowed his characters to adventure across our own world in "The Adept's Gambit," in "Rime Isle," our world intrudes on Nehwon, with references to Odin and Loki. Leiber also teams up the wizard Khahkt, from "The Frost Monstreme" with Faroomfar from the story "Stardock," offering additional closure to that story and also providing consequences for Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser for their earlier misadventures. At the same time, "Rime Isle" is really the first time Leiber has shown his characters to be leaders as each much give orders to the band of men they brought together at Cif and Afreyt's request, and both characters are up to the task.
Although Swords and Ice Magic ends strongly with the duet of "The Frost Monstreme" and "Rime Isle," the first third of the book is negligible and can easily be skipped without missing anything of import. Leiber doesn't introduce any major characters or any particular quirks of Nehwon culture and he characters simply allow events to happen to them.
|The Sadness of the Executioner||Under the Thumbs of the Gods|
|Beauty and the Beasts||Trapped in the Sea of Stars|
|Trapped in the Shadowlands||The Frost Monstreme|
|The Bait||Rime Isle|
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