I ordered this book a while back but only got round to reading it now. It's a collection of four longish S&S tales set in a sort of far-future dyi...moreI ordered this book a while back but only got round to reading it now. It's a collection of four longish S&S tales set in a sort of far-future dying Earth where science and magic have merged and demons (aliens?) stalk the land. At the start of the book Nifft, the titular main character, is presumed dead, and the tales that follow are arranged as a sort of series of reminiscences by his good friend and chronicler Shag Margold. In addition, each piece has an introduction giving a bit of background to the story that follows whilst the stories are narrated by Nifft, a self-aggrandizing rogue with a flair for words and who, one suspects, cannot entirely be trusted to be telling the entire truth of his exploits. This method of successive removes help the reader form an impression of added richness and depth to the world.
Stylistically and in general tone, Nifft the Lean reads like a mixture of Vance, Leiber, Moorcock and Clark Ashton Smith. To say that Shea writes like an elaborate pasticheur, however, would be unfair. These are fine tales, that can stand with the best in the genre. Nifft himself is a marvellous storyteller, a not-quite-lovable rogue who relates his various thefts, rescues and daring crackpot schemes with a zeal and panache that's wonderfully entertaining and, sometimes, touching. His world is a brutal one, but also filled with fascinating details, and much of the pleasure of these tales lies in simply savoring its wonders lying nestled amidst its horrors.
As a writer, Shea has talent. Like Leiber, he knows when to add little touches of realism to counterpoint the fantastic elements. And like Vance, he knows when to temper his imagination to increase its potency. In the wonderfully titled opening story, Come Then Mortal, We Will Seek Her Soul, Nifft and his companion embark on a literal descent into hell to reunite the soul of a witch with her lover in return for a key to a tower of untold riches. It's a fantasmagoric ride through a horrific netherworld straight out of the mind of Hieronymus Bosch. Yet the horrors are not merely visual but underline a particular moral or philosophical point. The close of the tale is fitting and poignant.
The second piece, Pearls of the Vampire Queen, is a little more down to earth, being a tale of a rather odd pearl hunting expedition in a marshland that's no less hellish than the setting of the first piece. It's a stronger tale, however, due to the presence of an elegantly developed setting and a stronger cast of characters. Shea creates an entire mini-ecosystem here, as well as a culture revolving around vampire worship that's not only plausible (within the confines of the setting) but, perhaps, preferable as a system of rule.
The third story, Fishing on the Demon Sea, is by far the longest and most ambitious of the tales. It's also my least favorite, however, being marred by some sloppy writing, plotting and unrealistic characterization. Some, mind. Arrested on trumped up charges whilst vacationing in a cattle town on the edge of nowhere, Nifft and his companion Barnar are forcibly coerced into rescuing a rich landowner's spoilt son, who was taken to hell by an aquatic demon inhabiting the fabled Demon Sea. This is more or less a standard quest plot, and goes on for just a shade too long, though it includes some of Shea's most imaginative conceptions.
The fourth tale, The Goddess in Glass, returns Nifft to the world of men. The city of Anvil Pastures is threatened by the imminent collapse of a nearby mountain after decades of careless mining have destabilised its foundations. The city's "goddess" (really a dead alien encased in a vast glass case) instructs the townsfolk via her oracle that the only way to deal with the threat is to retrieve a flock of her ancient cattle, giant, rock eating grubs that were lost centuries ago in a vast war that wiped out all trace of the aliens save the goddess herself. Nifft is very much a background character in this one, and whilst the story itself isn't bad, it suffers from a slightly too detached feel which the other pieces (all written in the first person) lack.
Even given these two relatively weaker pieces, the collection as a whole is a work of fine quality and well worth seeking out if you enjoy literate fantasy of the Leiber and Vance variety. Shea wrote two more books involving Nifft, The Mines of Behemoth and The A'rak, the first of which was collected together with the tales I summarised above in The Incompleat Nifft.(less)