Sunday, March 19, 2023

Book Review: Swords Against Death

book cover for Swords Against DeathIn the second installment of this rousing series, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser journey from the ancient city of Lankhmar, searching for a little adventure and debauchery to ease their broken hearts. When a stranger challenges them to find and fight Death on the Bleak Shore, they battle demonic birds, living mountains, and evil monks on the way to their heroic fate. Fritz Leiber’s witty prose, lively plots, and superb characterizations stand the test of time.

This collection of ten short stories picks up shortly after the events in Swords and Deviltry. Although written and published over a span of thirty years, the stories are arranged here in chronological order as per the characters' lives.

Yes, death is a common theme running through this collection. Whether it's dealing with the undead in the catacombs of the Thieves' Guild or battling Death himself, there's more than just combat mortality going on. There are beings long thought dead that have come back to life for revenge, and the dead haunting the living such that they'll do anything to be at peace. As great as Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser are in a sword fight, sometimes it takes wits to survive. Other times, the odds are so overwhelming that it's best to just run away.

In the first edition of D&D's Deities and Demigods, there was a section dedicated to the Nehwon Mythos. That was my first introduction to Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser and the beings that dwell there. The stories were an obvious inspiration to Gygax and company, and reading this collection of stories, one can't help but see it. Notable characters that show up here include the alien wizards Sheelba of the Eyeless Face and Ninguable of the Seven Eyes. There's an encounter with the goddess Tyaa and her fearsome flock of birds, Devourer, and, of course, Death.

I really enjoyed "Thieves' House", "The Bleak Shore", "The Sunken Land", "Claws from the Night", and "Bazaar of the Bizarre." I feel that these stories really exemplify Leiber at his best. Besides detailing the prowess of his heroes' swordsmanship, Leiber can set a scene, whether it be fantastic...
The lenses and brass tubes, some of the latter of which were as fantastically crooked as if they were periscopes for seeing over the walls and through the barred windows of other universes, showed at first only delightful jeweled patterns, but after a bit the Mouser was able to see through into all sorts of interesting places: the treasure rooms of dead kings, the bedchambers of living queens, council crypts of rebel angels, and the closets in which the gods hid plans for worlds too frighteningly fantastic to risk creating.
or forboding...
Only his eyes responded to his will, turning from side to side, drinking in details with fearful curiousity: the endless series of vague carvings, wherein sea monsters and unwholesome manlike figures and vaguely anthropomorphic giant skates or rays seemed to come alive and stir as the phosphorescence fluctuated...
My one complaint would be that the POV shifts within the stories were often sudden and jarring with no break to indicate the switch was coming. I don't know if that was a product of the times, but I was taught that that was bad form. But it's not like anyone is going to crucify Fritz Leiber for that.

I enjoyed this one more than the first book in the series. Leiber takes his characters—and the reader—on an adventurous ride through Nehwon, encountering strange and deadly beings, forcing them to use their wits when swords aren't enough. Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser: It's like a buddy movie for the D&D crowd.

4.25 stars