Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser: Ironic Heroes

I recently finished up reading Swords Against Death, the second collection of Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories.

If you’re not familiar with them, they’re a pair of adventuring rogues who’ve contributed a great deal to the Sword and Sorcery genre. They’ve also got an entry in the secretly famous Appendix N. Essentially they’re a couple of dude-bro friends, a barbarian and a more traditional (smaller) acrobatic thief type, who seek out riches and debauchery all over the world.

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The characters themselves, while not as iconic as Howard’s Conan, have many SFF-nerd-fans among the older crowd. As one would expect of the Greatest Swordsmen in the Universe (TM). At times I was reminded of Drizzt, actually, and I’m sure there’s a seed here in Fritz’s duo.

In many of the earlier tales, the two are fighter-thieves. Certainly powerful, but not really any more unbelievable than Conan or John Carter or Ender Wiggin (geez, I just realized I don’t even know any contemporary characters to allude to anymore). If you’ve read the first (chronological) collection, Swords and Deviltry, you’ll know that eventually they each morphed into some combination of fighter/ranger/rogue/wizard/barbarian/bard. In Swords Against Death, however, they’re simpler characters, and that is to the good.

It’s also worth noting that some of the stories take place in Lankhmar, which was one of the early fantasy cities that really came to model the “urban adventure” game setting. And the Fafhrd and Mouser stories are also one of, if not the earliest setting to make use of a “thieves’ guild.”

So what I’m saying here is that Leiber broke a lot of ground. Even if he doesn’t become your favorite author after reading these tales, there’s a lot to recognize and appreciate.

What did I think of Swords Against Death? Well, I’m glad I read it. And I liked it much more than Swords and Deviltry.

Once again I was surprised that the collection seemed to lead with the weakest material, for “The Circle Curse” is rather uninteresting.

The stuff in the middle is mostly good. There’s plenty of good adventuring and some cool ideas, like a house that eats people.

The final stories are interesting and my feelings are mixed. “The Price of Pain-Ease” held a compelling premise and a kind of cool adventure hook for any GM’s who are paying attention, but the foolishness and selfishness of the protagonists (who are supposedly as close as brothers) ultimately didn’t carry well.

“The Bazaar of the Bizarre” was an apt title. The main idea of this story was almost cool, but ruined by clumsy explanations and silly execution. One of the main shticks could have been direct forerunner to the whole idea behind the cult-classic film They Live, and it was an engaging idea here. As a weird story, The Bazaar works, but I think it’s one of the weaker entries here.

The idea of these two rogues becoming beholden to mysterious and powerful wizards struck me as a potent way to unlock future story ideas, but the way in which this developed could have been done better.

Another thing that niggled me throughout was the framing of Faf and GM as heroes, when they’re clearly not. As is often the case, Cirsova had some good insight into this for me, being the under-educated “critic” that I am.

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In summation, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser are worth checking out if you enjoy Sword and Sorcery, if you’re a GM looking for game ideas, or if you’re an Appendix N archaeologist. Skip Swords And Deviltry and go for Swords Against Death.

-Bushi

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Mazes and Monsters

There is a film from 1982 called Mazes and Monsters, starring a young Tom Hanks. What? You’ve never heard of Tom Hanks starring in a fantasy Dungeons and Dragonsy movie? That’s because this isn’t really a fantasy movie, and it isn’t a good movie.

Mazes and Monsters is about a group of college kids who play the titular game. Tom Hanks takes on the role of a transfer student looking to make a new start after becoming too absorbed in M&M to the detriment of his grades. Almost immediately he meets a young (and unconvincing) genius who also happens to be the Dungeon Master Maze Controller for a small group of players on campus. Hanks initially declines, but is eventually pulled in after meeting one of the other players, who happens to be a girl. The fourth member of the group is a hunky blonde dude who apparently can’t find love because nice girls are put off by his good looks.

The movie kind of crawls along. Things happen. There’s an inconsequential romance. The genius MC convinces the group to graduate from tabletop play to LARPing in a dangerous nearby cave.

For some reason Tom Hanks has some kind of psychotic break in the darkness, and he takes on the identity of his “holy man,” Pardieu. Somehow he’s living with this new personality for weeks and his friends don’t really notice anything other than him acting “a little weird.”

Then he disappears. His friends eventually track him down to New York City, where he’s gone to seek “the Great Hall,” some crazy fantasy version of his long lost and probably dead brother. Some punks try to mug him and he knifes one of them, seeing a lizard beast.

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His friends wind up saving him before he takes a dive off one of the Twin Towers, but the film ends on a bleak note. Despite his mother saying that he’s much better, the group discovers that he’s trapped thinking of himself as Pardieu. He tells them that the inn he’s been staying at (his parents’ house) is a good place and asks them to accompany him on an adventure to the dark forest beyond the enchanted lake, just off the family’s property.

So this isn’t a fantasy story of magic and adventure. It’s the story of a stressed out kid who goes crazy and retreats to a game world. Shame. I was hoping for something like Dragonslayer but with Tom Hanks instead of the guy from Ghostbusters 2.

If for some reason you’ve read this and still want to see it, it’s currently on Amazon Prime.

-Bushi

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Thoughts on Tarzan: it was fine

I recently finished up reading Tarzan of the Apes, because I could no longer respect myself as an Appendix N/old school SFF blogger who hadn’t done so yet (though it may be worth noting that Tarzan isn’t actually Appendix N). I’ve been meaning to write sooner, but my flesh husk has been busy regenerating from a viral plague, among other preoccupations, some of which might involve simulated trucks.

At the risk of becoming the one PulpRev-oriented site that speaks occasionally unflatteringly and repeatedly of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Tarzan was okay.

I’ve never been big on jungle adventures, honestly. The Solomon Kane tales that did were excellent because Robert E. Howard is a baller. Seriously, if you haven’t read any of the Kane stories, you should. It’s arguably some of his best stuff – even better than Conan.

But the Jungle Book media that I’ve consumed never impressed me, and I’ve never found King Kong (I know, it doesn’t all take place there) to be particularly interesting.

If you’ve never read it, your image of Tarzan, shaped by clips of old black and white films, the Disney animation, and parodies like George of the Jungle, probably amounts to an adult Mowgli-type dude who was raised by gorillas and swings around on tree vines yodeling.

As is the case with Frankenstein and probably numerous other classics, the modern perception is far removed from the reality of the character.

For one thing, the apes that raised Tarzan aren’t gorillas. They are more intelligent (even having a primitive vocal language of their own) and distinct from the other apes of the jungle.

Tarzan himself may owe a spark of inspiration to Mowgli, but the character is basically a superhero, and I think it helps to think of many of ERB’s protagonists in this way. Tarzan is incredibly strong and adaptable, possessed of superior intellect, and is both primal and cultured. It takes him mere weeks or months to go from a savage ape-man to a European gentleman in speech and manner.

Also, Tarzan does not yodel when he swings around. He gives a ferocious cry after making a kill.

By the way, mild spoiler alert here.

I grew to like the Tarzan character. My main complaints with the story aren’t with him, for the most part. I do think he’s a little too perfect, but again, if you think of him as a proto-Superman (similar to John Carter in some ways), this is fine.

Mostly I found almost all of the supporting characters to be unbelievable and irksome. Tarzan’s French captain companion isn’t bad. He serves his purpose as Tarzan’s main gateway to civilization and the world of Man, building upon the groundwork laid by the cabin of Tarzan’s father.

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The hero’s cousin, Clayton, is also a fine man and a decent character. This presents its own problems. Namely, Clayton is a rival for Jane’s affections and for Tarzan’s title and inheritance. This sets up Tarzan to be noble and self-sacrificing, but it’s also a somewhat uncomfortable feeling for the reader (or at least for me). Clayton is shown to be handsome, brave, and noble. But he’s also an obstacle for the hero.

I don’t intend to read the sequel, so I read the plot synopsis for the Return of Tarzan and I see that ERB deals with this by changing Clayton and making him a coward. This enables Jane to break off their engagement because he is now a cad. Poor Clayton. It would have been better for him had he died in the jungle, it seems. But oh well – Jane has to end up with Tarzan somehow, and we can’t have anyone feeling guilty on Clayton’s account!

Before we get to Jane, her father and his companion are almost insufferable. Wandering into the jungle for no reason, arguing academic and philosophic points while being chased by a predatory cat and then rescued by Tarzan, and then refusing to follow him: perhaps these antics were meant to be comical, but I just found them exasperating.

As for Jane, I agree with my friend Alex of Cirsova, who commented that she is the worst of the ERB women. She is alternatingly indecisive and rash, as well as fickle. Jane is part of the reason Clayton doesn’t work as well as he could have. At the start of the story, the two are taken with one another. And why not? She’s pretty, and he’s a handsome, brave, virtuous, rich British noble. But as soon as she gets a look at Tarzan, she’s instantly over Clayton and smitten with our jungle god. Because man is he hawt.

This may cut close to reality, and we pulp fans do like our alpha males who take what they want. But it reflects poorly on Jane, I think. Clayton is a fine, upstanding man whose only demerit here is that he’s not an exotic demigod. He’s a likable character and he’s just been spurned by the female lead for purely superficial reasons. Understandable, perhaps, and realistic, sure. But not very admirable.

Besides this, at least in the first book Jane doesn’t really show any of the fierceness (or of course loyalty) that Dejah Thoris and even Dian of Pellucidar do.

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A couple things in the book’s favor – ERB was masterful at both action and at hitting certain emotional beats (that he seems to hit in every story, but they keep working!). The same is true in Tarzan. There’s some epic action, and some gripping feelzy moments. I especially liked the story of Tarzan’s parents.

So it was an enjoyable read. I’m glad I read it. But I don’t really feel much desire to continue with the series. I’ve still got a bunch of Barsoom waiting for me!

-Bushi

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A few thoughts on Jirel

My recent posts over at Castalia House have focused on women in SFF; more specifically the fact that they’re nothing new! Contra one of the sub-bullets of The Narrative, great women writers and characters have been present in fantasy and scifi for ages. My latest example is C.L. Moore, who’s gotten a fair amount of recognition in the OSR/pulp scene all along and has seen a little burst of mentions over the past week or two in particular.

Finding a starting point with a writer as prolific as Burroughs or Brackett or Vance or Moore can prove a challenge. Luckily for me, I had stored away in my mindbox a review of Cirsova’s from last year. Jirel of Joiry just sounded both fascinating and different. For those of us who grew up on endless iterations and derivations of Dragonlance and Gary Stu the Emo Elf and a small, merciful injection of the Hobbit, this stuff continues to be mind-blowing:

A fiery barbarian-woman lordess who journeys to hell and blackens her soul to gain a weapon with which to vanquish her conqueror, only to realize too late her love for him.

Holy crap, that’s a weird tale.

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Anyway, here are a few thoughts and takeaways from reading the five Jirel stories written exclusively by Moore (there was one additional one penned in collaboration with her husband, which wasn’t included in the collection I read).

1. I mentioned this in my CH post, but it bears repeating – the Jirel stories aren’t primarily fantasy in the way the genre is understood today. This is probably because the genres didn’t used to be so rigid. Sure, Jirel of Joiry has fantasy elements. But it’s a weird tale; it’s horror.

2. Related – Jirel of Joiry is widely considered by critics to be a foundational, if underrated, member of the sword and sorcery sub-genre. This isn’t something I really care enough about to make an impassioned argument over, but I honestly don’t really see it. “Jirel Meets Magic” could fall into that basket, but the other tales contained very little if any physical combat. That is, she cuts up a few unseen horrors in the first tale, and she shanks a guard through a door in the last (which was admitedly pretty cool), but most of her conflicts are overcome by virtue of her spiritual and emotional strength, her prodigious courage, and her indominable will. There is certainly plenty of magic and an abundance of the strange and supernatural, but not a whole lot of “sword” going on at all.

 

3. Howard and Vance are still my favorite writers. What I mean is that Howard’s prose is just beautiful and flowing and demonstrates a clear understanding of economy of words. As Kaiju noted, it’s “lean and mean.” And it’s poetic.

Vance, on the other hand, knew how to both wield and craft words and build worlds like a true grandmaster. Some people may find it befuddling or pretentious, it’s true, but I absolutely love it.

That’s to say nothing of their titantic imaginations.

Well, Brackett impressed me to a similar, though not quite (yet) matching degree. Moore has, as well. I found the writing in “Black God’s Kiss” to be a little uneven in a purely technical sense, but I think that is most likely because it was written early on in her career and was perhaps less polished than her succeeding works.

Like with Howard, there is a poetic flow to Moore’s writing that not many authors achieve. The Jirel stories are lean, well-crafted, and wonderfully creative.

4. Moore would have fit right in if she were included in Appendix N.

Edit: After arguing on Twitter with some nerd-friends, I’m going to revise this statement. Personally, I found the Jirel stories to have much the same feel, in terms of content, setting, imagination, and characters, as some of the other beloved Appendix N authors. Compelling arguments have been put forth as to why Jirel is not “D&D,” and so I will concede that point. But the more important statement I wanted to make still stands – if you like the Appendix N stuff, you will like Moore.

Not only did she associate with and befriend writers like Brackett, Lovecraft, and Howard, but the way they inspired one another is pretty clear when you read their stuff.

That’s it for now. Go find some C.L. Moore to read.

-Bushi

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Thoughts on the Broken Sword

The Broken Sword, perhaps the best known and most renowned of Poul Anderson’s novels, is the third book of his that I’ve read, and with that I put a notch in the last of his Appendix N entries.

My feelings on this one are mixed. Of the three I’ve gotten to thus far, my favorite has been the High Crusade (which Gita just recently reviewed). The Broken Sword is a skillfully crafted example of what a fantasy story can be when a talented writer just lets loose and does what he wants. Goblins and dwarves? Of course. Christ plus a bunch of Norse gods? Sure. Throw in some Celtic godlings and crap while you’re at it! Cursed sword, changeling berserker, elf vs troll war, oodles of magic – get it all in! Why?! Because it’s fun and cool!!

Before we get into spoiler territory, let me just say that there’s a lot to unpack here. The Broken Sword has plenty going on. Anderson’s fluency with Scandinavian (and other) folklore is on full display, and though this one perhaps contributed less directly to the worlds of D&D and vanilla fantasy tropes than Three Hearts and Three Lions, that’s not for lack of creative and wondrous material.

Now let me get to some specifics. *Spoilers ahead!*

“Be nice to your sister”

Ok, let’s just get this out of the way first. There’s a lot of incest. Now it’s not really distastefully done; it’s reasonable for the characters given that they’re unaware of their siblinghood; it’s integral to the story. Yada yada yada. Sorry, it just bugged me. To expand upon that a bit:

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I found the amount of ink spent not only developing but emphasizing the love between Freda and Skafloc to be excessive. We get to have to read about their lovemaking, kissing, cuddling, yearning for one another, tickle fights, and all those tender moments. It may have been a little too much for me had it been a non-incestuous union, but in this case, yeah. I just got sick of reading about it.

Pacing

This may very well be on me and the fact that I spaced out my reading of the book for so long (it’s only like 200-something pages, if I recall correctly), but I found the story a bit slow until the last quarter-ish. Don’t get me wrong – there’s plenty of action and interesting happenings, but I felt like it was all setup and not really the main event. I mean we knew there was this magic sword waiting to be reforged and wielded; we knew Skafloc was (probably) going to find out eventually about his parentage and that he was banging his sister; we knew that Skaloc and Valgard were heading for a showdown. But none of that stuff happened until the end. That’s fine, I guess. Really that’s the point of the climax. But I felt like it was a long wait for the payoff.

Drow and gods and things

That said, there’s a lot of cool stuff going on. I found the sparingly employed appearances of the Norse gods to be exciting (Odin is a prick, by the way) and was pleasantly surprised to see Irish deities and spirits showing up, as well. We even get mention of shen and oni, though they’re not prominently featured (nor do they need to be). One of my favorite parts of the story is when Skafloc sets out to Jotunheim with a Celtic sea godling. Though I did find it a little lame when Anderson tosses in couple lines that basically say “and the two had many awesome adventures and kickass brawls, but I’m not gonna write about those, so.”

The story also offers the earliest use I’ve come across of the term “drow,” which these days just evokes Drizzt and his crew of OP, Forgotten Realm goth elves. So that was pretty neat.

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Demon sword 

The titular broken sword turns out to be the cursed blade Tyrfing, a weapon right out of Norse mythology. I’ve been saying for a while that Durindana needs more love, but really I welcome the namedropping of any non-Excalibur weapon. Nothing against Excalibur or the sword in the stone; they’ve just been done to death.

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The Broken Sword also most likely played a role in the inception of Moorcock’s Elric character. It’s been noted that Moorcock was an Anderson fan and that his whole Chaos/Law alignment system smacks of Anderson’s Three Heart’s and Three Lions. So does his demon blade, Stormbringer (and also Mournblade, I suppose) strongly resemble Tyrfing in some regards: perilous, evil, a tool of malicious gods, and also granting a supernatural strength and fighting prowess. When wielded, Tyrfing’s grim influence affects Skafloc’s personality, driving him to cruelty , fury, and violence. So does Stormbringer possess its own demonic personality – a dark will that Elric must subdue and overcome.

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Stumble

It happens to the best – a scene that makes you scratch your head. I complained about this in my thoughts on King David’s Spaceship and Triplanetary.

There’s a part in the story where Skafloc has infiltrated the troll-occupied castle of Alfheim, the former seat of Imric, Skafloc’s kidnapper and foster father. He seeks to steal away the secretly hidden broken sword and have it reforged. As he makes his way to Valgard’s chamber, he encounters a troll sentry. They do battle and he slays his foe. Though he worries about being detected, no one seems to have heard. Ok, good.

So he climbs some stairs and proceeds to the lord’s quarters, where he finds Leea and Valgard. His antagonist is asleep, and he wishes he could kill him but decides he cannot risk the noise.

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Aw come on, Poul. Maybe you wrote yourself into a corner and didn’t want to revise or overthink this, but just feels nonsensical. Skafloc has just brawled with a killed a troll outside in the hall and no one had heard. But now that he’s facing a sleeping enemy (I’ll note one of the strongest and powerful leaders of the troll army and one he’s got a grudge against), he’s afraid that he’ll make too much noise? Let’s not forget that Skafloc is almost elfin in his grace and agility while still a superbly strong human man. And he’s not up to the task of clamping a hand over Valgard’s mouth and quickly slicing open his throat? Meh.

Not really a major sticking point, but it stood out to be as a “wut” moment.

The elves!

This may warrant a write-up of its own, as I’ve had longish Twitter debates on the topic, but Anderson writes of a different, older kind of elf than we see these days. Tolkien popularized the image of elves as tall, graceful, honorable, and good. That’s not to say that elves have historically been villains only, but it certainly used to be a more common role for them and fey in general.

But the Broken Sword is pre-Tolkien, and we get another look at elfin kind. When it comes down to troll versus elf, the latter comes out looking pretty good. They’re fair to look upon, often merry, and usually they don’t come across as especially cruel or sadistic. However they’re pagan beings – they cannot bear holy words or symbols, and they fear the White Christ. They perform unholy magics, such as being able to call upon the dead (though this is a rare and dark ritual). When they can get away with it, they steal human infants. They’re wanton both in bed and in battle.

Now Tolkien may not have meant his elves to just be guys with pointy ears who live in the woods and are good at archery and magic. To be fair to him, his portrayal of the elves of Mirkwood in the Hobbit was a little more sinister than the image we all have now of Orlando Bloom as Legolas. May not be his fault, but that’s what we’ve got, and that’s what D&D elves, for example, tend towards.

Contrast that again with Anderson’s elves, who favor cavalry and wield strange alloys unknown to man, because they cannot bear the touch of iron. They also don’t shy away from familial banging and other sexual depravity (so far as I remember Tolkien’s elves do some cousin kissing but not too much closer than that).

By the way, for some reason I always picture Leea as that evil elf chick from Record of Lodoss War.

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Speaking of Leea, one interesting point about Anderson’s elves is that for most of the story we’re led to believe that they are incapable of love. We do see that Leea is fond of Skafloc and jealous of Freda. It’s not until the very end of the story, though, that Anderson drops a bomb on us. Imric makes a comment about elves being unable to love, and we get an aside from Leea about him being wrong. So really she aided Skafloc and Freda out of love for him.

Skafloc and his shadow

I remember not being particularly impressed with Holger, the protagonist of Three Hearts and Three Lions. Likewise I was underwhelmed by Skafloc. At first he was too arrogant and cocksure (thinking to know better than his foster father); next too enraptured by his sister; and finally too angsty and brooding. These were perhaps all understandable and human ways of acting, but I didn’t find them super attractive in a hero we have to spend so much time with.

He did have an interesting arch, ultimately. His transformation when wielding the cursed sword was tragic (but fun), as was the way he undid himself in the end.

I honestly found Valgard to be a more engaging character much of the time. More and more often these days we get villains who are evil because of their parents or because of society; because they’re victims. I think that’s fine, but it is often lazily done. Ultimately the choice to be good or evil is just that – a choice. And that is reflected in this antagonist. Valgard is clearly conflicted about his wickedness. There are a few times when he laments his evil deeds and shows remorse. But in the end he lays the blame upon his father, Imric, and curses his life. Instead of atoning and taking responsibility for himself and his actions, he decides to say “f it” and just be evil. So I did feel sorry for the guy – he was dealt a crap hand, and even in the end when he bests Skafloc and is about to claim the evil sword, it betrays and kills him right off. Dang – at least Skafloc got to have some fun with it! Still, he was a dick and he deserves what he got.

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In conclusion

Anyway, those are the main of my thoughts on the book. I felt like the buildup was slow but worth it – the ending was tragic but satisfying. Not among my Grand List favorites, but definitely a cool story worth a read. On the classic 5-point scale, I’d give it a 4/5.

 

-Bushi

bushi

Swords and Stuff, a second crack at Leiber: Strike Two!

It’s been a while since I’ve gushed here about pulp. Hopefully I’ll have something for ya’ll soon – Edgar Rice Burroughs’ At the Earth’s Core is making its way through the pipes.

In the meantime, I don’t want to lose track of what I’ve been up to. You know, for posterity.

Fritz Leiber is one of the older sword and sorcery guys who gets a lot of positive buzz from some of the old hands. I guess that makes sense – he certainly had a visible impact on the development of Dungeons and Dragons. Appendix N don’t lie! Still, I wasn’t impressed with my first reading of his stuff. Gather, Darkness! had some cool ideas, plus an exclamation point in its title! But it was just too bogged down with ideology that got in the way of telling a good story or building interesting characters. I guess I should have started with some Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories, right? His signature adventuring duo! Well…

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I nibbled on Swords & Deviltry for a while. Many train rides: reading a few pages, falling asleep for the remainder of the trip, and repeating. And then I finally finished it.

First off, let me plug another review of the same collection. Dan over at QuQu Media got his up before me, and it’s a bit kinder. Go check it out!

As for my own thoughts…

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I’ll try not to rant for too long. I actually largely agree with Dan, only I take a somewhat dimmer view. The pacing was poor, yes. I would say both Fafhrd and Mouser’s individual stories were only all right. The latter was a bit more engaging for me, as well, but I found Ivrian irksome and weak (perhaps that was the point). And when she finally gets interesting…the story ends. Then in the last tale, she mostly reverts back to the annoying weakling.

The last story, “Ill Met in Lankhmar,” is the best of the three. I’d still only call it “not bad.” Leiber was a strong writer, and he wielded words well! I did admire that strength while reading, despite being somewhat unimpressed with the story itself.

I’ll say this – Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser are synergistic. They’re much more fun to read about when they’re together. They’re like the Friends of sword and sorcery (how’s that for a generational reference?). Their fight scenes are fun, and they have some chuckle-worthy banter.

Unfortunately, this tale reads like the prequel that it is. The two become best friends pretty much immediately. Because, you know. They’re supposed to be best friends.

*SPOILER ALERT*…..

 

Also, both of the womenfolk are dead weight. You know the two protagonists most likely aren’t going to willingly leave their lady loves (which is all right because frankly one is naggy and half-crazy and the other is feckless). So you know Leiber’s gotta get them out of the picture somehow. He goes give them a pretty memorable death – I give him credit for that. Don’t see too many people strangled by magic smoke and then eaten by rats.

 

 

*END SPOILER*

“Ill Met” is fun enough. There are elements that some may find overdone or silly (there’s just something about a hero drinking like 10 jugs of booze and still being functional enough to fight that always bothers me), but overall it’s enjoyable. By today’s standards, it’s worth a read. But for me now, compared to the other stuff I’ve been reading (Vance, Burroughs, Howard, CAS, Zelazny)…meh.

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Alex of Cirsova has been telling people that they should start with Swords Against Death, which was written earlier than the chronologically preceding Swords & Deviltry. This is probably sound advice. Seeing as I already own it, I’ll give it a shot sometime and see if I can join my pulp fan friends in Leiber Land, or if maybe he just doesn’t do it for me.

Bonus thought: the sorcerer’s familiar in “Ill Met” bears a strong resemblance to those in Gather, Darkness! Perhaps not surprising, but interesting to note.

-Bushi

bushi

Trying to Write Part 4

Part I, Part II, Part III

11.

Nothing but mud and bones grew in the garden. It was an open air courtyard in the center of the keep surrounded by sheer stone walls, un-interrupted by windows or design of any kind. Single door was the only way in or out.  Crows swollen from feasting on corpses left to rot peered down from the their perches at the tops of the walls at their next meal chained to the lone wooden pillar in the garden. He yet breathed with head hung low dripping from the cold rain that beat against his body, mouth speaking words that only he could hear:

Weave and Spin

Hammer and Forge

My life your work

Crafted and shaped

Instrument of your hand

To live is to serve

Until upon your Mountain

I am born again

He finished his prayer and hung silently listening to the rhythm of the rain dancing on stone in the dark. The door to his prison opened and man stepped through, lantern in hand. He wore the armor of the guards, dual short swords hung at his sides. Orren raised his head to greet his new visitor.

“You must be the flayer. I’d tell you not to waste your time, that I have no knowledge that could aid you, but I doubt you’d listen. I imagine with a name like the flayer you probably enjoy your work too much to be dissuaded.”

“Keep quiet” he replied. “I am no flayer. That degenerate fetishizes his knives too much to be caught dead with them in the rain. I have come simply to ask you a question.”

“And what might that be?”

“Was it truth you spoke in the great hall? Have you power to vanquish the one that dwells beneath the mountains?” the man said.

“The power is not my own, but I am it’s conduit. Darkness flees at the name of my master. With who am I speaking?” Orren replied, confusion in his voice. Then he recognized the man as one of that stood guard upon dais of the master’s throne

“Does it matter who comes to free you?” The man said as he pulled a set of keys from his cloak. A moment later Orren was loose.

Orren rubbed his wrists and stood. “I suppose it does not, but should we die this night I’d like to know the name of the man for whom I will advocate at the gates of my Lord’s feasting hall.”

The man handed Orren one of the swords that hung at his side and spoke:

“Much blood will be shed this night, may it not be our own. My name is Berek. Follow me”

12.

Berek extinguished his lantern as soon as they entered the corridor that led to the garden and they raced along the damp stone, extinguishing every torch they passed that lit their way.

“I sent the guard on duty away on an important task, an important task that does not exist. He will realize my deception soon and alarms will be raised. We have little time.”

Berek navigated the labyrinth that made up the halls of keep without hesitation. Even had Orren freed himself of his bonds he would have been hopelessly trapped here in the winding hallways, a structure designed to confuse and disorient. They came to an abrupt halt by the a large wooden door flanked on either side by torches. Berek extinguished both of them, then he knocked.

“‘Berek, captain of Lord Zathen’s guard requires entrance. Official orders.” He shouted.

There was a rustling from within, the sliding of a deadbolt, and the door swung open. Orren stood in the shadows to the side of the doorway, sword in hand.

“Who is in charge here?” Berek barked, surveying the room before him. Swords and battle axes hung on walls next to shields and mail, they were nothing if not well armed. Three men sat at a round table playing cards, faces full of shock at seeing their captain unexpectedly.

“I…I am” said one of the men as he jumped up from his seat, spilling ale on the cards laid out on the table. “Forgive me, I did not know that you were coming.”

Berek frowned. “We will discuss playing cards on duty at another time. I’ve come to retrieve the armor and weapons confiscated from the prisoner. Our Lord wishes to study them.”

The guard squinted. “I was commanded not to release these arms to anyone, not unless the Master himself comes down here to retrieve them.”

“I catch you neglectful of your duty and now you are also calling me a liar? Perhaps you would like to see the flayer when he is done with our visitor?” Berek said moving his hand to the hilt of his sword.

“I mean no offense captain, but he will have my head without his direct order. My head is much more useful attached to my body.”

“That’s not what your wife told me” one of the men from the table interjected, causing the other guards to roar with drunken laughter. The head of the guard made an obscene gesture and threw his mug of ale at the offender, then turned back to Berek.

“I will go myself up to the throne and verify the orders. You can wait here with the other guards.” he smiled and started for the door. Before he could take two steps Berek drew his sword and removed head from shoulders in one swift movement. There was a moment of calm as the headless body crumpled to the floor. The blood streaked faces of the remaining two card players stared at their captain in disbelief, the head of the third player rolled with an almost comical wobble to their feet.

“Should have just given me what I came for.” Berek sighed.

Shock turned to rage on the faces of the living guards and swords were drawn. Berek was surrounded for a brief moment before Orren appeared in the doorway and ran his sword straight through the chest of the unfortunate fellow at the door. He kicked the now limp body off of his blade. It was now an even fight but not a fair one for drink had slowed the movements of the remaining guards. A few clashes of steel, screams of agony, and the fight was finished.

Berek walked over to the headless body and searched through the pockets. A moment later he produced a ring of keys and tossed them to Orren. He pointed to a chest in the back corner of the room.

“Put on your armor. More will be here soon and they aren’t likely to be drunk, just angry.”

13.

With armor donned and weapons in hand, Orren and Berek stepped out once more into the dark corridor. Berek had traded his short sword for a large double bladed axe. “We might have to hack our way out of here, this will help” he had said with a grin. Orren’s travelling bag was also recovered. His runic stones were all accounted for, but the flask was emptied of its contents. He would have to find a fresh water source when they escaped this wretched place.

They raced through the endless inky black, extinguishing all light as they passed. Darkness swallowed their path, there was no going back. Noises that no human could, or should, make could be heard behind some of the barred doors as they passed, they pressed on. Neither man spoke a word. Then Berek stopped suddenly. He remained silent for a moment then turned and spoke:

“Ahead is an entranceway to the keep. I thought it known only to myself and the master. Someone else has opened the door. I thought we had more time.”

Orren grinned. “The time for skulking in the shadows has ended it seems. Let us go to meet our fates beneath the light of the stars, the eyes of our ancestors.” Orren walked past Berek and out into the night. Berek hesitated for a moment in the black hall. He muttered to himself as he drew his sword and followed the foreigner out into the night, “At least it stopped raining.”

14.

They came out to a stretch of flat ground flanked by tall trees.  Across the clearing directly in the path of Orren and Berek stood was tall tussock grass swaying in the night breeze. Beyond that were the mountains. They were free.   

“Let’s go before we are seen” Berek said. The began their way across the clearing when Orren stopped. He reached down to the pouch that hung at his side a flipped open the flap. The four stones were aglow, pulsating slowly, blue light emanating from the bag.

“We are not alone.” Orren said with grim look upon his face.

“Indeed we are not. There in the grass.” Berek pointed the tip of his sword at the swaying tallgrass. A lone figure stood where the blade pointed, dressed in a long shredded shawl like that of a beggar. It stepped into the moonlight that illuminated the clearing and threw off the shawl. Orren’s grip tightening around his pike and he felt his jaw clench.

“Rather we’d have run into the entire barracks than him.” Berek said, spitting. Orren believed him.

Before them stood a man grinning madly wearing naught but a small cloth to cover his loins. He was lean and pale, almost sickly looking if not for the tight muscles that rippled beneath his skin, or at least what once was skin. His body was covered from head to toe in ancient script from the infernal language; words from the deepest of frozen hells, spoken only by the many tongued abominations that dwell there. Dark prophecies, blasphemies, horrific tales from the abyss had been carved into his flesh. His skin was but a monstrous scar, a walking testament of primeval malice.

In his hand was a dagger, a black blade attached to a gnarled wood handle. Orren could see it clearly in the moonlight, but no light reflected off of it. The blade was alive. He could feel its presence, and it could sense him.

“She was promised blood, she was.” The scarred man hissed. “I get to keep the skin but she takes the blood, your blood” He pointed at Orren. “Don’t put up too much of a fight and maybe we’ll kill you quick. Maybe. She always gets what she wants. It’s been too long since I’ve had to hunt my own prey.” He grinned, mouth full of teeth filed into razor-like points.

15.

“The blade…” Orren said. “I have seen its like before. It is not of man.”

“I’ve seen it before too, and I’d prefer to not be skinned by it. We have the advantage. Hurry before he calls for aid!” Berek shouted as he advanced quickly towards the scarred man.

Berek moved like a charging bull, an avalanche of steel and fury. He swung his blade at his foe but cut only the air. His opponent was quick, quicker than any human should be. His movements were almost arachnid in nature; limbs outstretched and dashing angularly from one point to the next. Before Berek could turn the abomination was behind him, a moment later and the stygian blade was brought across the armored shoulder before it. Metal and flesh split open like the seam of grainsack had been cut. Blood appeared for a moment…and then stopped. The wound was immediately blackened, as though a searing heat had cauterized it.

The ghoul jumped back a few steps before his now kneeling victim and held out the dagger. Not a trace of blood or flesh could be seen on it.

“Ohhhhh she likes you. Lots of fight. We will enjoy draining the life from you one cut at a time.”

He began to step forward with blade outstretched when the hook of Orren’s pike caught him from behind, hooking his right side. Orren pulled with all his strength, spinning the antagonist around to face him. A sound like metal scraping stone could be heard. The flayer glared at Orren, then reached down and unhooked the pike from his side. No mark from the blow could be seen. Any other man would have lost his innards from the force with which Orren had struck.

“She has remade me in her image. I am darkness incarnate. You can no more strike me down than you can the shadows that haunt your dreams. And you do dream don’t you? I’ve seen them. We’ve seen them.” He said ,curling his lips into a sneer. Then he charged, swinging his dagger. Orren was able to lift his shield in time and the black blade bounced off the woven strands, staggering its wielder. The flayer regained his footing and stared at the armored man across from him. His eyes narrowed and the grin he wore until now was no more. Uncertainty was now in his eyes, uncertainty and rage.

Orren slowly advanced. With shield raised he absorbed blow after blow from the demon blade, pushing that tattooed man back further and further. Orren left no opening for him, corralling him with pike and shield, always at his front. The flayer cursed and spit like a feral cat, blows harmlessly bouncing off the holy shield, ever retreating. They were now almost to where Berek kneeled. He was conscious, but his face was covered in sweat and pain. His eyes met Orren’s for a moment, and then he smiled. Berek grabbed his sword and lunged towards the legs of the assailant. At first glance it appeared to Orren that Berek had missed, the blade entering the space between the torturer’s legs. Then he jutted the handle of the blade forward, disrupting the cursed man’s balance.

Orren saw his opening and lept forward, bowling the flayer over onto his back. He landed atop the foe and pinned the evil weapon beneath the shield. The demon’s free hand raked across Orren’s face. Blood poured down and stung his eyes, yet he remained firm in his positioning. With his pike Orren slashed at the flailing limb, but he could only fend off strikes. No lasting damage could be done to anywhere the text of damnation was written. Berek saw the struggle and crawled over to aid. He managed to pin the other hand of the ghoul and for a moment all was quiet. Then the flayer began to laugh, a cackle straight from the bowels of the demon serpent itself.

“You going to hold me here forever? Why don’t you tell me a story while we wait? HMMM? Tell me of your family foreigner. How are they doing? Would you like me to tell you?” The flayer howled with evil glee, teeth glinting in the moonlight.

Teeth….teeth. There is no writing on the teeth.

Orren lifted his pike and with the butt of the handle began to slam it on the open jaw of  his captive. Teeth splintered and broke beneath the onslaught, howls of laughter turned to howls of pain and the sound of gargled blood. Then Orren reached down into the pouch at his side and pulled out one of the stones, still pulsating with light, and shoved it into the bloody maw of the flayer. The flayer began to choke and tried to spit, but orren held his mouth shut with his knee and his nostrils closed with his mailed fist. He swallowed and the stone was gone.

The flayer’s eyes opened wide and his face became twisted with agony. He opened his mouth and coughed up smoke and black tar like substance.

“We should probably get clear” Orren said to Berek. He stood up quickly and dragged his companion away . As soon as they released the hands of their captive he sprang to his feet, both hands raised to his throat, dagger lying in the grass beside him.

“WHAT DID YOU PUT IN ME?!? WHAT DID YOU DO!?” he screamed through coughs of smoke. “GET IT OUT!”

He shrieked in pain and began to claw at his stomach to no avail. Then he saw the dagger in the grass. He picked it up and plunged it into his abdomen up to the hilt, then dragged it clean across the width of his body. Black liquid poured out as he shoved a hand inside the gaping wound. He dug through his bowels as Orren and Berek looked on in horror, and then produced the small stone, still glowing.

“I’ve got it…I’ve…got it.” He said in a voice barely above a whisper. He looked at the two men before him and smiled, then crumpled to the ground.

Berek and Orren sat in silence for a moment staring at the carnage before them. The words carved into the flesh of the now dead man began fade before their eyes, and then disappeared. The black knife was gone.

“Did you know that making him eat that rock would do…that?” Berek asked, still staring at the corpse in front of him.

Orren shook his head “No…but…I knew he wouldn’t like it very much.” He walked over to the dead man and pried the stone from his crooked fingers. He wiped some black gunk off of it in the grass and placed it back in his pouch. They were no longer glowing.

“We should go. Can you walk?” Orren looked at Berek.

Berek stood slowly, wincing in pain. Then he smiled, “I’ve had worse.”