Leiber is one of the fathers of sword and sorcery fiction, and it shows. Reading these stories feels a little like sitting at the feet of an old, old storyteller while he reminisces about childhood heroes. There’s a feel of both age and timelessness about these stories–tall, fur-clad barbarian and short swordsman-thief who can vanish in the shadows–this is like reading the origin myth for characters we’ve known for decades.
The four stories (three novellas and one vignette) within describe the adventures of Fafhrd, a giant barbarian from the frozen wastes, and the Gray Mouser, a youth who has apprenticed to a hedge-wizard. ‘Induction,’ covers a meeting between the two in a famous city. ‘The Snow Women’ is Fafhrd’s origin story, and how he came to leave his tribe. ‘The Unholy Grail’ covers the Grey Mouse’s origin, and ‘Ill Met in Lankhmar‘ is when they meet again and become true companions. ‘Lankhmar’ won a Hugo and Nebula for best novella, and it is clear why.
These are the tales that influenced the greats of fantasy. There’s a tone of wry humor, perhaps a little mocking at youth and noble intentions, and early in the stories I wondered if the narrative would remain tongue-in-cheek. Then Leiber would suddenly twist it, and the frustration, the rage, and the fear in his characters would come into play. It’s well done.
Leiber does, perhaps, show his age in these stories, both personally and culturally. Woman have no likeable roles, playing controlling mother-witch, junior controlling fiance-witch, Lady Macbeth, and Ophelia. Still, there is something of sophistication in their character as Leiber gets inside their emotional landscape to explain their actions, or lack of. As the stories of Fafhrd and Gray span 50 years, I’m interested to see where they end up.
Learning Leiber was one of the fathers of S&S sent me on an internet hunt, and I find my appreciation for his stories growing. His parents were both Shakespearean actors, and a reoccurring theme through his writing was acting and the life of actors. Late in life, he received royalties from D&D, who used Fafhrd and Gray as characters.
A solid three and a half stars.