Alex's Reviews > Swords and Deviltry

Swords and Deviltry by Fritz Leiber
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Mar 02, 2010

really liked it
Recommended to Alex by: my good friend, Jeff

I was a huge fan of Lord of the Rings when I was growing up. I really admired Tolkien's world-building, the staggering amount of backstory that bolstered every little bit of his unfolding mythos. It's a world based on history, language and the austerity of myth. It's also very British.

If Tolkien and C.S. Lewis are the British archons of modern swords-and-sorcery, America's answer is probably the tandem of Robert E. Howard (creator of Conan, among many other characters) and the author in question here, Mr. Fritz Leiber.

This is the first volume in the collected travails of Leiber's great duo of characters, Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser. In it, we get a taste of their lives before they met, and then witness the events that lead to their joining up and becoming the legendary knave-heroes of Lankhmar.

As already mentioned, Tolkien's work was conceived and executed from a god's-eye view. It is a complete and intricate world with details packed in and correlated, from the haze of myth (the Silmarillion) to point of fact (Lord of the Rings). And the posthumous publication of tomes and tomes of the author's notes only adds to this image of an exacting creator with his hand in everything.

Leiber, on the other hand, seems to create history only so far as it confronts his two central characters. Of course, over their long and distinguished career this gave him the opportunity to flesh out the world of Nehwon and the city of Lankhmar. But his focus is always on Fafhrd, the burly northerner, and the Gray Mouser, nimble thief and hobbyist in sorcery.

The relationship between the two protagonists forms the core of this picaresque series. It becomes Leiber's point of interaction with his creation, and the rest of the world rushes in to facilitate the characters' exploits. This is the tradition of 'Don Quixote', 'Huck Finn' and Pynchon's 'Mason & Dixon'.

And because he focuses his considerable literary skill on fully realizing these characters, they become far more fully alive than anybody in Tolkien (and Lewis's characters are, I believe, made from wood and caulk...). They are endearing and they are funny. Legitimately funny too, not in the 1960s sitcom kind of way that a lot of American fantasy seems to emulate. Leiber's humor is subtle without being tongue-in-cheek and, again, always rests in our understandings of the characters, the best friends in a sea of enmity.

This first volume is rollicking enough, and definitely delivers in a couple great action sequences and comedic repartee. The ending (no spoilers here) also boldly sets up the trajectory for the rest of the series. It's definitely the best place to enter the world of Nehwon.

That said, the pacing does flag a couple times, and I was left trying to figure out why a certain paragraph was needed or why this conversation really needed to keep going. But these minor gripes occurred entirely in the beginning of the book, before the two heroes meet. I will take this to support by point above that it is the dynamic of the two characters together that really make these stories go, and as we see them stumbling along before meeting each other, we become all the more thankful for the super-heroic duo they would later become.
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