Wednesday, 5 February 2014

The Blog Fantastic 014: Swords Against Death review

This is the first book I’ve ever read by Fritz Leiber. Like Edgar Rice Burroughs before him, I picked up this book by Leiber because of Mordicai Knode and Tim Callahan’s Advanced Reading in D&D series of posts on Mordicai Knode raved about the fourth book in this series and the series as a whole. After reading his solo post on Swords Against Wizardry I figured I would keep my eye out for some of Leiber’s stuff down at the used book store. There was a few of them there and I chose Swords Against Death because it’s part of his most famous series, the stories of Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, and it was the closest thing to the first book in the series. Long story short, I didn’t like it.

Long story short is an apt way to describe the Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser stories. Swords Against Death is a collection of short stories and I think every single one of them was too long. Each one of the stories started out so good. They all start out as interesting stories but they all end up as stories that dragged and dragged. For the uninitiated, Leiber’s most famous fantasy series is the original fantasy bromance. Fafhrd and the Mouser are made for each other. They’ve been living by the code of bros before hoes before the term ever came into being. They’ve remained popular since their first publication in the late 1930s and I can understand why. The tone of the stories in this collection varied quite a bit, ranging from humour to horror and various other combinations of genre in between. In truth, I enjoyed certain things about this book what I couldn’t get over was Leiber’s style.

Leiber has a very strange style. He’s clearly an intelligent person and he uses quite the extensive vocabulary but I get the sense he doesn’t take his own stories seriously. That in itself is not a bad thing. I can’t imagine Terry Pratchett is terrible serious about his Discworld novels but he approaches his approach is humorous because that’s what his stories are; humour (among other things). Leiber doesn’t seem to know exactly what kind of stories he is or should be telling with Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser so he’s tried several different types. Sadly, not all of them work. The Circle Curse is the worst. It’s a very short story about Fafhrd and Mouser travelling all the lands of Nehwon in an attempt to mend their broken hearts following the deaths of their lady loves at the end of the first volume. It’s awful. The story doesn’t succeed at anything. It tries to serve as an introduction for two famous wizards in the series (fails both encounters are uninteresting and feel forced), act as a preview travelogue of many different places in Nehwon (fails, it’s just name dropping and vague descriptions), it also tries to show just how heartbroken the characters are (fails, they clearly don’t give a shit and are only lusting after their unfortunately deceased booty calls) and it tries to be a story with a joke ending (it fails, we see the ending coming from the very beginning of the story).

I think Leiber’s problem is that the stories lack focus. One of the better stories is The Howling Tower and I think it’s because it’s one of the most focused. The guys are travelling and Fafhrd hears a strange noise. As he listens more closely he becomes enchanted by the noise and quickly makes his way to a tower out in the distance. Grey Mouser follows him to find out what’s going on with his friends and they encounter a strange and horrific trap at the tower. It’s all very eerie and Leiber does a great job with the mood of the story. The ending is also very nice. It’s simple but so very effective. It’s also followed by another good story, The Sunken Land, which again, is pretty focused and is just as much of a horror story as a fantasy story and it works.

Even though I didn’t enjoy the book or even most of the stories, they nearly all had some really interesting ideas in them. Leiber’s not a good writer but damn, he has some crazy ideas! I would love to write about the ideas behind The Howling Tower and The Sunken Land but I would ruin them if I did. All of his stories start off with a great idea, one main idea. Then along the way Leiber drops a few smaller and equally interesting ideas but he’s boring in his delivery. If Leiber frequented hipster coffee shops today, he’s be the guy blowing your mind with great ideas for a story but then fail miserably while trying to write it because he’s not a writer. He’s just a guy with interesting ideas but without the ability to craft an interesting idea behind it.

It might sound like I hated Swords Against Death. I didn’t but I’d be hard pressed to recommend it to anyone. Leiber isn’t an engaging writer and I had to force myself to pay attention because I wasn’t invested in the characters at all. I knew that Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser would survive anything more than I’ve ever felt that way about other fantasy characters before. They seem to laugh in the face of danger, not because they have no fear or believe that their abilities and friendship will conquer all evils. Nah, I knew they would survive anything because Leiber thinks his characters are the best barbarian bros that ever lived! That’s just not so. The writing style is dry, the stories are pointless unless the point is to write a story with a lot of mood or something in a black humour (more of a light grey, really) style. I’m genuinely puzzle as to how the book because so influential and remains, to this day, a fantasy classic.

Note: Little did I know the second volume in the series collect many of the earlier stories written by Leiber. The stories in the first volume were written after most of the stories in the second volume. I wasn’t aware that I was reading these (kind of) in chronological order, but it might work in Leiber’s favour as I think I will read the other Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser book I purchased: Swords Against Wizardry.

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