Fritz Leiber

The sixth book in the series is again a collection of short stories and a novella.

Publication year: 1997 (1973-1977 for the stories)
Format: print
Page count: 330 + an excerpt of Swords against the Shadowlands by Robin Wayne Bailey (has anyone read that?)
Publisher: White Wolf Publishing

The collection starts with six rather short pieces which don’t really offer any twists and not much adventure, either. Basically, our heroes are chasing girls. But the last, and the longest story, is mostly adventuring and the most worth reading.

The Sadness of the Executioner
: Death needs to make his quota and sets his eye on Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. He sends an executioner for each, rather than just striking them down dead, so that the heroes have a chance against them.

Beauty and the Beasts: On the streets of Lankhmar City, the Twain are following an alluring girl (who, surprisingly, isn’t naked) whose one side is black and the other white. While following her, the Mouser and Fafhrd are arguing which one of them should have her.

Trapped in the Shadowland: The heroes are looking for their previous lovers. Instead the two find themselves in the desert, dying of thirst. They can just glimpse a cooler side but that is Shadowlands, Deaths domain. And Death wants them badly. Enough to do some serious magic.

The Bait: The most straightforward short story: The Mouser and Fafhrd awake finding a naked young girl standing between their beds. Each wants to have her first but strange warriors appear.

Under the Thumbs of the Gods: Issek, Mog, and Kos aren’t happy with our heroes who have worshipped, or pretended to worship, them for a short while and then abandoned them. Now, they want revenge and they do it in the forms of the girls whom the heroes have previously loved.

Trapped in the Sea of Stars: Our heroes have been sailing and nude girls forming from mist are trying to lure them either to their deaths or back home. Mouser waxes philosophical about Nehwon’s laws of nature which he apparently invents on the spot.

The Frost Monstreme
: Two beautiful girls find Fafhrd and the Mouser in a bar, bored out of their skulls. The girls claim to need heroes to guard their legendary home, the Rime Isle, from a fleet of Mingol pirates and their leader, the evil sorcerer Khahkht. They give the heroes plenty of gold for hiring more men like themselves but are whisked away by an icy sorcerous wind. Fafhrd immediately seizes the opportunity for action and hurries off to find ten more Northern berserkers. Mouser is a bit slower but in the end also goes to look for ten fighter-thieves. They agree to meet in a middle of ocean near the legendary sea port. But getting to the port is harder than they thought.

Rime Isle: Fafhrd, the Mouser, and their hand-picked heroes have arrived to the Rime Isle but immediately things take unexpected turn: the town people haven’t hired any mercenaries and haven’t heard about a threating Mingol Fleet. However, the Mouser and Fafhrd get secret messages from the girls that they want to meet in secret. The adventure includes various twists and two gods which have been worshipped in our lands.

While reading this one, I wasn’t sure if I’m going to continue with the series. (I have the last two books.) But after the ending of “Rime Isle”, I’m curious to see what the duo will do next. However, I didn’t like the stories here nearly as much as the previous volumes. There’s just so much musing about how worthless and traitorous girls are that it’s not a nice read for me. There’s also less adventurous feel to the stories. Perhaps Leiber could have explored other countries from which we sometimes only know the names. On the other hand, in the last two tales our heroes are maturing; they’re becoming leaders of men rather than lone vagabonds. We’ll see if that trend continues.

Still, I think this is the weakest book so far and not the place to start reading this series.

The second half of the “Lean Times in Lankhmar” collection.

Publication year: 1996 (1964-1968 for the stories)
Format: print
Page count: 144
Publisher: White Wolf Inc.

The collection contains the stories “In the Witch’s Tent”, “Stardock”, “The Two Best Thieves in Lankhmar”, and “The Lords of Quarmall”.

These stories chronicles the adventures of the Grey Mouser and Fafhrd. Fafhrd is a tall Northern barbarian while the Mouser is a slight man and a former sorcerer’s apprentice. They’re both warriors and thieves, and Mouser has some slight skill in magic, as well. They’re after fortune and women, and sometimes fame, too. Often they adventure together but sometimes they are pitted against each other, like in this collection’s last story. They both have a strange wizard as a patron: Fafhrd works for Ningauble of the Seven Eyes and the Mouser’s patron is Sheelba of the Eyeless Face.

The first story is really short and funny. The Mouse and Fafhrd are planning a trip to the Stardock which is the highest mountain in the whole Nehwon. They are searching for treasure which is supposed to wait for any man who reaches the top. But first, Fafhrd insists that they consult a witch. This doesn’t go well.

In “Stardoc” the duo starts their climb accompanied by an ice-cat Hrissa whom they had bought free during their travels. The mountain is a very dangerous place but they are also trailed by a couple of other rogues who are also searching for the “pouch of stars”. The ice and the snow are the real enemies in this story, though.

After that adventure, the duo gets into an argument and split up. They even split their jewels and try to fence them separately. This is difficult because the jewels can only be seen at night, so ordinary fences most likely don’t want to deal with them. So, they each get quite a quirky fence as buyer.

In the final novella, the duo are still so sick of each other that they take different jobs – or so they believe. In reality, they’ve both been hired by a prince of Quarmall. Quarmall is a strange, labyrinthine place, mostly underground. It’s ruled by Lord Quarmal whose two strange sons hate each other and are constantly trying to kill each other by wizardry. Now, they’ve both hired a swordmaster as well: Gwaay has the Grey Mouser and Hasjarl has Fafhrd. Gwaay lives in the Lower levels of Quarmall and his brother in the Upper levels, so they never actually meet and neither do their households, unless a meeting is specifically arranged. Hasjarl’s wizards send disease spells to Gwaay all the time but Gwaay’s wizards protect him from them, all the time. Lord Quarmal is old and his sons are expecting his death.

As usual, Leiber’s writing is fantastic and evocative:
“Once, the Lords of Quarmall ruled over broad meadows and vast seas; their ships swam between all known ports, and their caravans marched the routes from sea to sea. Slowly from the fertile valleys and barren cliffs, from the desert spots and the open sea the grip of Quarmall loosened; not willingly but ever forced did the Lords of Quarmall retreat. Inexorably they were driven, year by year, generation by generation, from all their possessions and rights; until finally they were confined to that last and stauchnest stronghold, the impregnable castle of Quarmall. The cause of this driving is lost in the dimness of fable; but it was probably due to those most gruesome practices which even to this day persuade the surrounding countryside that Quarmall is unclean and cursed.

It’s also bizarre and horrible, especially in the fourth story.

The world itself is quite depressing. By today’s standards it might be called grimdark: lots of people are slaves with no hope of escaping. In the last novella especially, one brother is a torturer and the other is apparently a psychopath: he has no regard for the people around him, the only feeling he seems to have is extreme hatred toward his brother. Oh, and women are very much second class citizens (if at all citizens): slaves mostly, victims and prizes. But the vast majority of men aren’t much better off: mostly slaves, also, and the rest doing what they must. The powerful are too worried about keep their power to actually enjoy it (except by keeping harems of slave girls). Indeed, very few people seem to enjoy their lives in these books.

As much as I liked the earlier stories, I’m again reminded of why I don’t read these back to back.

This is a collection of six fantasy short stories. Part of the Lean Times in Lankhmar collection.

Publication year: 1996, 1947-1968 for the stories
Format: print
Page count: 143
Publisher: White Wolf Publishing

The third collection that chronicles Fafhrd’s and the Grey Mouser’s further adventures.

In “The Cloud of Hate” (1963) the worshipers at the Temple of Hates manage to conjure a mist which is the Hate given physical form. The mist billows around Lankhmar looking for suitable people to kill or corrupt. Then it meets our adventurous duo, down on their luck.

At the start of “Lean Times in Lankhmar” (1959) the twain are separated because of lack of money. There are several amusing theories why this happened but none of them are confirmed. The Mouser ends up as an enforcer to Pulg who extorts money from small time priests while Fafhrd gets a religious awakening and becomes the only acolyte of Issek of the Jug. Fafhrd uses his skills as a skald to invent interesting adventures to the minor god and lots of people start to follow Issek’s pacifist ways. Of course, that means conflict with Pulg and his chief enforcer.

“Their Mistress, the Sea” (1968) is a very short story, only a couple of pages, where the duo recuperate from their previous adventures by doing a spot of pirating.

In “When the Sea-King’s Away” (1960) Fafhrd and the Mouser have been on the sea for a long time when Fafhrd starts to babble about the Sea-King’s wives and concubines who are lonely and looking for mortal lovers when the King himself is away. At first the Mouser thinks that his northern companion has lost his mind because of too long in the sun but then a passageway into the sea opens underneath their boat. The Mouser is hesitant to enter it but Fafhrd descends, looking for women and treasures. The Mouser has no choice but to follow his friend.

“The Wrong Branch” (1968): After their underwater adventure, the friends are convinced that the Sea-King has put a curse on them and they decide to consult Ningauble of the Seven Eyes for a cure. However, they find themselves in a whole new world: the Ancient Earth.

“Adept’s Gambit” (1947): The duo are quite at home in the new world, in Tyre. However, they are plagued by a new curse: when Fafhrd kisses a girl, she’s transformed into a sow. At first Fafhrd suspects the Mouser is playing a horrible prank. But then almost all of the girls the Mouser kisses are turned into slugs and they decided to consult Ningauble. The Gossiper of Gods tells them, after beating around the bush, that an adept is targeting them, and in order to fight the adept the duo will need various items. While lots of modern writers would have made an entire book out of each item, Leiber takes just a funny paragraph or two, and then the actual adventure begins. The story starts out funny but soon feels more like horror. The Elder Gods are mentioned a couple of times.
All of these stories are funny with lots of witty but long sentences. When the Sea-King’s Away especially has great descriptions. The second story makes fun of religions.

I found it a bit strange that Leiber brought the duo to Earth but then didn’t involve them in any historical or mythic stuff. There are a few references to myths created by deeds they had done, for example, Fafhrd and the Mouser supposedly defended a city against Alexander the Great, but they were actually a bit frustrating to me. I’d have preferred to read that story!

Still, the stories are funny and entertaining, especially the second one which pits Fafhrd and the Mouser against each other, sort of. And makes a point about the gods in Lankhmar and the gods of Lankhmar (you just don’t piss off the latter).

This is the second collection of Leiber’s short stories. It has ten stories which are all shorter than in the previous collection. The tone of these stories seems to me to be more light-hearted and more roguish because here we see the duo plying their trade as adventures and thieves and taking advantage of every opportunity they can get. However, in many of the stories the narrator follows just one of the pair and leaves the other wondering what is going on or as a prisoner.

It starts with The Circle Curse which basically describes Fafhrd and the Mouser’s wandering after they left Lankhmar city.

In The Jewels in the Forest they are hunting a treasure with a map. According to the map, the treasure is in a deserted house in the middle of forest. Well, they get more than their bargained for…

The third one is Thieves’ House were they once again butt head with the Thieves’ Guild. Fafhrd is taken prisoner and the Mouser uses disguises and secret passages in an effort to free him. But something even more magical is afoot.

The fourth one sets up most of the rest of the short stories. In The Bleak House, the duo has an eerie encounter and they have to travel to the edges of the earth. The rest of the stories tell the tales of when they try to get back.

My favourite is the Howling Tower which I’ve even GMed as a short adventure between places A and B. The villain of the story still strikes me as very insane and scary. When I read the collection for the first time years ago, I had nightmares about this one.

All in all, I liked these stories. If I hadn’t such a huge to-read-pile waiting for me, I would continue with Leiber since I have the rest of the collections. I went in expecting these to be very sexist but much to my amazement they aren’t. Oh, they certainly aren’t paragons of feminism, but what women there are in the stories are competent and intelligent.

This book collects two novellas, one short story and about a page long Induction. The Induction gives a short overview of the world of Nehwon and the main characters and also a fine taste of Leiber’s complicated writing style. The first novella, the Snow Women, tells the story of how the tall and strong young Fafhrd of the Northern Snow clan defies his mother, the Queen of Witches, his pregnant girlfriend, and icy sorcery to escape to civilization with the lovely actress Vlana. The short story, the Unholy Grail, tells about the apprentice wizard Mouse who avenges the death of his master and rescues his girl from the clutches of a cruel baron who happens to be her father and in the process the Mouse become the Gray Mouser. In the last novella, Ill met in Lankhmar, the intrepid pair becomes fast friends and are suckered into defying the mighty Thieves Guild of Lankhmar while they are drunk out of their minds.

All of the stories have a humorous overtone even though they are definitely not comedies. The Unholy Grail is the most serious one of the bunch and deals with black magic and all other sorts of villainy. Leiber’s writing style is surprisingly complex: he uses lots of imbedded clauses, very long sentences, older words (well, sometimes he can’t really help it), and word forms such as “massive-walled” and “mazy-alleyed”.

Fafhrd, who is supposed to be a barbarian and is, indeed, called that a couple of times by the narrative voice, is the one of the pair who likes to read and values civilization above all things. Yet sometimes he displays superstitions. The Gray Mouser is a swordsman and a hedge wizard although he rarely uses his magical skills. He’s also described as dark skinned, no matter how he’s drawn on most covers.

Together they get into and out of lots of scrapes and usually their enemies are magical in nature – whether or not they are actually human or not.