Pulp Reading Group (Mar 2009): Fafhrd & The Gray Mouser

Over on Goodreads (www.goodreads.com), I recently joined a great reading group called “Pulp Magazine Authors and Literature Fans.” The group discusses, as you might figure, pulp fiction, and every month chooses a book to read and talk about in the forum. Last month’s choice was Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, which I didn’t have time to get to (but read many years back, and remember enjoying it).

This month, the choice is Fritz Leiber’s The Swords of Lankhmar, the only novel-length tale of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser.

lankhmar1
(That’s not the cover of The Swords of Lankhmar, but is the great Mike “Hellboy” Mignola’s cover to another collection of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories).

Fritz Leiber (along with Robert E. Howard and a few others) was instrumental in the actual creation of the fantasy genre known as “sword and sorcery.” Leiber, in fact, was the man who coined the term. His stories are sardonic and bawdy and full of wit, full of action and invention, comic and tragic, sometimes damn near Shakespearean…If your notion of heroic fantasy literature is based on the yards and yards of Tolkien ripoffs and D&D novels (themselves, ultimately, Tolkien ripoffs for the most part), Leiber will prove a true literary treat.

Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser are two of the greatest characters in fantasy, a pair of good-hearted rogues of flexible ethics and decidedly Dionysian morality, as adept with their wits as they are with their blades. Fafhrd is a towering red-bearded barbarian from frosty northern lands, the Mouser a slight trickster from the urban sprawl who dabbles a bit in the arcane (with often questionable results). They adventure through the world of Nehwon (read it backwards), which is full of corruption and vile magics and things to do. And the adventures are so well written, they tickle the mind:

…Then [Fafhrd] shrugged and said loudly, “What’s so special about these rats? Do they do tricks?”

“Aye,” Slinoor said distastefully. “They play at being men. They’ve been trained by Hisvet to dance to music, to drink from cups, hold tiny spears and swords, even fence. I’ve not seen it–nor would care to.”

The picture struck the Mouser’s fancy. He envisioned himself small as a rat, dueling with rats who wore lace at their throats and wrists, slipping through the mazy tunnels of their underground cities, becoming a great connoisseur of cheese and smoked meats, perchance wooing a slim rat-queen and being surprised by her rat-king husband and having to dagger-fight him in the dark. Then he noted one of the white rats looking at him intently through the silver bars with a cold inhuman blue eye and suddenly his idea didn’t seem amusing at all…

Simply put, there is no finer writer than Leiber in fantasy, and he’s a damn sight better than most in any genre:

The Demoiselle Hisvet stood as tall as the Mouser, but judging by her face, wrists, and ankles was considerably slenderer. Her face was delicate and taper-chinned with small mouth and pouty upper lip that lifted just enough to show a double dash of pearly tooth. Her complexion was creamy pale except for two spots of color high on her cheeks. Her straight fine hair, which grew low on her forehead, was pure white touched with silver and all drawn back through a silver ring behind her neck, whence it hung unbraided like a unicorn’s tail. Her eyes had china whites but darkly pink irises around the large black pupils. Her body was enveloped and hidden by a loose robe of violet silk except when the wind briefly molded a flat curve of her girlish anatomy…

If you’re a completist, the first book in the series is Swords And Deviltry, but The Swords of Lankhmar is the only novel in the cycle, and there’s nothing particularly spoilery or incomprehensible about reading it without reading the other books. Hop over to Goodreads and join the group, join the discussion. Or just read Leiber on your own, as a gift to yourself.

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