Swords’ Masters

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Swords’ Masters by Fritz Leiber.

Leiber Swords' Master

Swords’ Masters is the second book club omnibus of Leiber’s Fafhrd and Mouser stories, including the fourth through sixth volumes of their original book format.

The four stories of Swords against Wizardry alternate between substantial novellas written in the mid-1960s and short bridging pieces written later by Leiber to pull them together into a consolidated volume. The bridging stories, “In the Witch’s Tent” and “The Two Best Thieves in Lankhmar,” are both great fun, though. “Stardock” is a wonderful story of fantasy mountaineering, and it is complemented by “The Lords of Quarmall,” set in an underearth kingdom with its dynasty of sorcerers. This last story (the first of them to be written) was grown by Leiber from an unfinished manuscript by his friend Harry Fischer.

Swords of Lankhmar is the only full-fledged novel of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser that I’ve read. At first, it seems like it might not even be such, because a preliminary nautical adventure seems to set it up to be episodic, but indeed, the whole thing is a single, complicated tale centering on an attempted conquest of Lankhmar undertaken by “Lankhmar Below,” i.e. the city of rats underneath Lankhmar. There are love interests for both heroes–likely the oddest such in all their adventures–assistance from their sorcerer-patrons, and more detail than previously available about the unimpressive upper reaches of Lankhmarian aristocracy. In this edition, Swords of Lankhmar is prefaced with a map of the world of Newhon–a welcome feature which is nevertheless awfully difficult to read, owing to varied calligraphy and an odd quasi-global projection.

The last book Swords and Ice Magic is full of retrospective glances at the earlier adventures of the two heroes, and is in many respects a sequel to “Stardock.” It starts with short stories, but these wax interdependent, so that by the time the reader reaches the long culminating novella “Rime Isle,” it feels as if they had merely been opening chapters of a novel. “Rime Isle” itself has more than a little taste of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods about it, concerning as it does fugitive gods trying to reestablish their bases of worship. It is strange that the conclusion of six volumes of Leiber’s stories leaves the heroes somewhere quite remote from the City of Lankhmar, i.e. the titular Rime Isle far out to the north in the Frozen Sea. Although I don’t know if it will assuage this particular discomfort, the fact inclines me to seek out and read the fugitive seventh book: The Knight and Knave of Swords.