I tell myself that I like to read what I call “crap fantasy,” but it’s not actually the case. I like good fantasy or, given the confines of the genre, great fantasy. I’ve tried reading crap fantasy–one of the Forgotten Realms novels, because I’d played D&D in that setting before–and couldn’t get past the third chapter. I need a relatively high grade of crap to keep my attention.
I had also played D&D–this in college in what was the best group I’d ever played with (we’d start at noon with a case of Newcastle)–in a Lankhmar setting, based on Fritz Leiber‘s stories. The Dungeon Master raved about Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories, and a few years later I started reading Leiber, but for some reason he didn’t, at that point in my life, take to me, or vice versa. If memory serves, I had picked up one of the books in the middle of the series. At minimum it wasn’t Swords and Deviltry, the first, and a good beginning. Maybe it’s that I started at the start, or that I’m at a point in my life where I’m more open to escapist reading, but I loved the book.
I will, before noting what struck me about Leiber, say that I’ve never read The Lord of the Rings, mainly because when I pick up The Fellowship of the Ring in a bookstore or library and flip through it, I can’t get past the dainty, tra-la-la prose Tolkein insisted on using. I say this because I’ve seen the films, and one thing I gather is that Tolkein created a number of very strong characters for his fiction, which is more than I can say for most of the fantasy I’ve read, which centers on usually one complex character with a series of arche- or stereotypes surrounding him, because it’s basically always a male central character.
Leiber, apparently in collaboration with his friend, Harry Otto Fischer, came up with two compelling characters and an even more compelling relationship between the two, and that strikes me as the basic reason these stories work in a way that genuine crap fantasy doesn’t. It should be said that Swords and Deviltry contains three stories, the first two about Fafhrd and then the Gray Mouser respectively, before they met each other. Most of the book is about either Fafhrd or the Gray Mouser, with the third story, the justifiably-famous “Ill Met in Lankhmar,” about their meeting and the formation of their relationship.
All of the stories are good, but without question “Ill Met in Lankhmar” is the masterpiece. Leiber has a lightness to his writing that, so diametrically opposed to Tolkein’s leaden prose, is refreshing, and much of this comes from the characters. The two are quick to drink and impulsive, which makes for lightness. The trick, though, is that Leiber can use these characteristics to bring the plot to totally devastating consequences, completely convincingly. He’s an excellent writer.
A last note: Mouser begins his career as an apprentice Wizard, Mouse. His transformation into the Gray Mouser is well-done–and it seems to me that showing (as opposed to telling) the transformation of a character is one of the more difficult things a writer can do–but though he showed himself capable with magic, he drops it completely in favor of swordplay, noting in a later story that magic was powerful but dangerous, or something like that, but with no further comment. Fantasy as a genre contains magic, but it’s dangerous it seems for a writer because it can easily function as a deus ex machina, relieving the writer of the need to think one’s way out of a literary problem. That said, and only having finished the second of the series now, I want Mouser to use a little magic sometimes, precisely because Leiber’s approach to it is that it has a cost. Witness my notes on Octavia Butler for more on why precisely this is so important.