THE KNIGHT AND KNAVE OF SWORDS
by Fritz Leiber
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
The Knight and Knave of Swords is the final collection of Fritz Leiber's stories of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, although after Leiber's death, Robin Wayne Bailey continued their advetures with the novel Swords Against the Shadowlands. In some ways, the stories in this volume are atypical of Leiber's tales, for they focus on his adventurers after they have essentially given up their lives of adventure to settle down on Rime Isle and make lives with their latest loves, Cif and Afreyt. While other stories have tended to separate the two heroes, these tales tend to focus on one or the other of them.
In the Mouser-less “Sea Magic,” Fafhrd gets used to life with only one hand having lost his left hand in “Rime Isle.” He proves adept at living with his handicap and when the golden treasures of Salthaven are stolen, he finds himself in position to recover them. Although Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser are most associated with the city of Lankhmar, it isn’t until they’ve settled on Rime Isle that we begin to see them interact with, and become part of, a community. When they were rescuing Lankhmar in The Swords of Lankhmar, they were doing it as heroes. When Fafhrd regains the treasures stolen from Salthaven in “Sea Magic,” he does so as a citizen whose community has been defiled. Leiber sets up the story as the opening salvo in a longer tale, and although Fafhrd is successful in preventing the success of the plot by brother and sister Mordroog and Ississi, it is clear their attempts will continue in subsequent stories.
While “Sea Magic” focused on Fafhrd, the Gray Mouser takes center stage in “The Sea Mer,” as he returns to Rime Isle with a galley full of trade goods that the island is unable to produce. "The Mer She" may be one of the problematic stories Leiber wrote about these characters. The Mouser is captaining his ship, the Seahawk to bring much needed supplies, especially wood, back to Rime Isle from No-Ombrulsk when he discovers that his men have apparently brought a young girl on board the ship. Unfortunately, the Mouser's response to finding the girl is not to become her hero, but rather to tie her up and view her as a sex object for his own pleasure, while letting his anger at his crew get the best of him. Even as his mistreats stowaway and crew, it is apparent to the reader that the girl, who claims to be a princess from some undersea kingdom, has a hold over the Mouser as well. Given the depiction of the Mouser in the story, it is difficult to feel any sympathy for his plight. Unfortunately, some of the most interesting aspects of the story, the Mouser dreading his life on Rime Isle as one of security, is barely touched on by Leiber and his focus is more on the danger to the ship brought about by the princess's attempts to get home.
In some ways, "The Curse of the Smalls and the Stars" is the most interesting and unique of the stories of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. While the Twain, as they are called throughout the story, are most associated with Lankhmar, this story makes it clear that they only really moved through that fabled city, they never really were a part of it. This story shows them, for the first time, interacting with the people amongst whom they live, and it isn't the Lankhmarites, but rather the residents of Rime Isle. The Twain are participating in their daily life and their folk festivals, interacting with the merchants and the children, not just their paramours du jour. While it seems right for them, it bothers their chosen gods, Mog, Kos, and Issek, who once again decide to become involved with their lives in an attempt to get them back to adventuring. It also bothers Ningauble and Sheelba, who want them to return to Lankhmar. The Lankhmarites, or at least some of them, are concerned that the two will come back and dispatch two assassins, referred to as "The Death of Fafhrd" and "The Death of Gray Mouser," to make sure they don't. There is little action in the story and it is clear that the Twain are always in complete control of their situation, but the scenes of them actually being part of a community make the story work.
Apart from The Swords of Lankhmar, "The Mouser Goes Below" is the longest story in Leiber's Nehwon series as well as the last. Unfortunately, it is also the most problematic. The story starts out promising enough. Loki, who was last seen in "Rime Island," is ready to exact his vengeance on the Mouser and insists the thief find himself under the Earth. While Nehwon's Death eventually agrees, he does so in a manner suitable for Loki himself. Unfortunately, into this mix, Leiber throws the character of Fingers, a young kidnapped girl whose presence allows Leiber to indulge in a variety of sexual fantasies which take an ongoing undertone throughout many of the stories and elevates it to an uncomfortable level that can't be ignored or brushed aside. There may be a decent short story hidden within the complexities of "The Mouser Goes Below," but excavating it isn't worth the effort.
There are many good stories and ideas in Leiber's series and there is a reason his characters and settings have had an influence on other fantasy authors and role playing games. By the time he got to the point in his career that he wrote the stories in The Knight and Knave of Swords, he had gotten to a point where he was experimenting with the characters, placing them in positions and a world which was unlike any he had written since the pre-Lankhmar story "The Adept's Gambit." While the first three stories in The Knight and Knave of Swords present a new take on "the Twain" actually interacting with the world that surrounds them instead of simply moving through it, "The Mouser Goes Below" seems to indicate that Leiber had lost track of what made the characters and their world special in attempting to place them in new situations. The heavy influx of gratuitous sexual content makes it a disappointing end to the long running series.
|Sea Madness||The Curse of the Smalls and the Stars|
|The Mer She||The Mouser Goes Below|
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