Monday, October 17, 2016
Appendix N Review - Fafhrd & The Grey Mouser Book 1: Swords & Deviltry by Fritz Leiber (Audiobook Ver.)
Hello everyone and welcome to a new intermittent series of reviews I'm going to be doing on books recommended by Gary Gigax in Appendix N of the AD&D DMG Ver. 1. For those of you unfamiliar; and I wouldn't blame you as I didn't know this treasure trove of fiction existed until I started following Cirsova Magazine on Twitter a few weeks ago; Appendix N was pretty much just a reading list that Gigax put into the original Dungeon Master Guide as a way to encourage people to expand their horizons when it came to fantasy and science fiction so they would have a deeper well to draw from when designing encounters and campaigns for their D&D games. If I had to hazard a guess, I'd say it was also a way to promote some authors and series of novels that were personal favorites of his, but that's just rampant speculation on my part.
Link to Appendix N.
Now, for whatever reason, Appendix N has become somewhat taboo in the current SFF (Science Fiction & Fantasy) scene, what with organizations like the SFWA going on witch hunts and the Hugo Awards ousting authors who aren't left-wing enough politically. Hearing this before I looked at the actual Appendix myself, I thought there must surely be some heinous shit in there. "This whole list must just be the Gor novels, in order, along with some other ridiculous material that is just brawny dudes rescuing scantily clad women over and over again. Imagine my surprise when I noticed that not only was H. P. Lovecraft on the list, but so was August Derleth, Robert Howard, Lord fucking Dunsany, Tolkien, and one of my personal favorite authors, Micheal Moorcock.
I may not be familiar with all the names on the Appendix N list, but these people are luminaries of the field and made it what it is today. What could these people have done that was so bad? Well, after looking into it a bit it turns out that their sins are exactly the same sins the comic and video game industries get saddled with nowadays. Not enough women, not enough non-whites, women are set dressing, basically go watch Anita Sarkeesian's Tropes vs Women series and you'll get the gist of what these authors are essentially being demonized (or at least shoved under the rug) over. Seeing as how I'd read enough of these guys to get the general idea of the Appendix, I knew that this is a load of horseshit, and immediately set out to expand my horizons and start burning my way through Appendix N as quickly as possible.
As you can see merely from this list on audible of the audiobooks of the Fafhrd & The Grey Mouser stories, I have quite the task ahead of me. So I thought to myself, if I'm going to do this, why not write up a few pieces for my website about the books I read? I need more blog-fodder anyway, and I might turn a few people on to something they never would've read otherwise, so away we go.
Now that the intro's out of the way, seeing as how I barely have time to read and my current reading-reading list (as opposed to my listening-reading list) consists of Nethereal, Torchship Pilot, Cirsova #2, and Thune's Vision, which are all new stories published either this or last year, I figured I'd start with Fritz Leiber's stories about these two lovable scamps since I can listen to the audiobooks at work. I also already had the first one, so this whole thing was kind of a confluence of circumstances that just worked in my favor, and as such here we are.
But that aside, since I'm listening to the audiobooks, and being an audiobook producer who listens to a lot of podcasts and audiobooks with both a consumer and producer's ear, I am also going to be reviewing the performance of the narrator and the quality of the audio. An audiobook can be the best story in the world, but if it has a crummy narrator and low production values it's not going to make people want to listen to it.
Fortunately, Swords & Deviltry has none of those problems. The narrator, Jonathan Davis, has a very good voice that's right in the range between 'able to hit the higher registers' and 'ear sex with a side of dark chocolate.' He doesn't trip over his words, and I heard not a single flubbed line that wasn't left on the cutting room floor like it should've been. I bring this up because audiobooks are sold for far more coin that do have flaws like that left in them, and being able to get all of them out when I've heard a lot of people leave the occasional accidental one in (or just barely edit their audio at all) is an important mark of professionalism for me. Davis keeps the story rollicking along at a decently fast pace, speeds it up in action scenes, and takes appropriate pauses for the more dramatic moments. 'Consummate storytelling' is a phrase that leaps to mind.
He also has voices he puts on for different characters, which adds a nice bit of flavor to the storytelling. My one single beef with his performance is that when it comes time for a character to yell, rather than yelling into his mic he constricts his throat and gives a strangled sounding half shout that just isn't impressive as turning the gain on your mic down and going full bore. This video by Laphin Hyena explains exactly what I'm talking about very well, and is actually where I learned how to scream in my own voice over work. Davis does this compression of his scream in several places in his reading, but other than that it's a very good narration and there are no other problems with it.
The production value on this audiobook is also very high. It was produced around 2008, so they didn't have the latest technology when recording, but it was published by Audible Studios so they're more than able to make up for that. There's only the slightest fuzz, which combined with the godawful shitty compression Audible puts on their audio files, gives the voice track a slight muzzy quality to it that can lull you to sleep if you aren't careful.
I don't do numbered ratings systems, so I'll wrap up this part of the ramble by saying that the production value is very good for Audible and I found it very pleasant to listen to. I would like to hear this uncompressed by Audible, maybe sold on someone's website as mp3 or wav files, but needs must and whatnot. Take that and do with it what you will, I'm not your mother. But it has my recommendation.
Now as to the actual story itself.
I was more than slightly surprised on hearing this. As I said in my last podcast I pretty much grew up on writers like Tolkien, R. A. Salvatore, Robin Hobb, and writers like them. Apart from the Rings Trilogy and The Hobbit, my interactions with fantasy literature had very much been with things that were written from about 1980 onwards. So given that I had a certain set of expectations when coming to this story. I'd bought it because I was getting into Fritz Leiber without contact with Appendix N, and I needed a good fantasy story to listen to at work. Fafhrd & The Grey Mouser seemed perfect.
So I knew a bit. Fafhrd is a barbarian, Mouser is a wizard. My understanding of fantasy literature was also affected by D&D 3.5 as well as Pathfinder (which to my understanding are essentially the same thing), so that lead me to believe that Fafhrd would be big, dumb, clumsy, possibly illiterate, and that he would have a great affinity for harming people that looked at him funny. I thought Mouser would be an anemic classical wizard, possibly with a big grey beard and robes, carrying a staff, and generally be worth not a single shit in a physical fight.
I couldn't have been more wrong if I'd been actively trying to get a completely opposite picture of these characters.
Far from being a big, dumb barbarian, Fafhrd is actually a bit of an intellectual. At any rate he's intelligent, and sometimes outright cunning and devious. No heroic saintly figure fighting for the greater good a la Drizzt Do'Urden, but a selfish, plotting, deceitful, lying womanizer who ultimately ends up leaving his newly wedded wife (who is also pregnant with their child) to go on an adventure in the southern reaches with some floozy of an actress who has a grudge against Lankhmar's thieves guild. He's a vengeful, petty monster and I loved every second of it. To turn the modern idea of a barbarian near-completely on its head was not something I was expecting from one of the foundations of the fantasy genre. There's a reason getting back to basics can be important and rewarding, kids.
And Mouser was nothing whatsoever like your classic Gandalf the Grey type of wizard. He can also be vengeful and petty, as well as being fiercely intelligent and more than a little bit of a firebrand. Granted, given circumstances in the book I'm not going to relate here because [SPOILERS REDACTED] he's got more than a trifling reason to be. And as far as being useless in a fight, perish the thought when it comes to The Grey Mouser. It turns out he's an accomplished fencer and can use his sword and dagger to open a man up just as quickly as your D&D Sorceror would cast a lightning bolt in their face.
With regards to magic, Mouser is just as (perhaps more so) willing to use black magic as he is white. This is a theme that I love to see return as I'm a great fan of the Dragonlance novels, and they played around a lot with the idea of different schools of magic, though theirs were Black, Red, and White. But this was wholly unexpected as I was expecting the roots of the genre to be similar to what I had been reading in post-1980's fantasy literature, Dragonlance excluded. It was very refreshing to meet a mage that could not only handle himself in a sword fight, but was also willing to delve into the dark arts to accomplish his goals. As I learned when I first started reading Moorcock's Elric books, morally ambiguous heroes or antiheroes are the most fun.
The story itself, details of which I will keep to myself because you really should go read/listen to this book, also threw me for a bit of a loop. Being the first book in the series, this details the meeting of our two rapscallions, complete with individual origin stories. It opens with Fafhrd's tale, which takes up a considerable amount of space, I must say. This was about the first half of the book. But it's an interesting story if you can get over the constant voice in the back of your head (or at least my head) wondering where the fuck Mouser was and when the hell would we be getting to him.
On that note, Mouser's origin takes far less time. Probably about an hour or so, listening to the audiobook. If I had to make an estimate it was about 1/8th of the total book. Whereas Fafhrd's tale had tons of detail and plenty of characters for the young barbarian to interact with, Mouser's is much more terse and brutal. But even considering the time spent on each hero's origins, I can't put my finger on which Leiber preferred. Fafhrd had more detail, yes, but Mouser had by far the more troubling and psychologically and physically damaging origin story. But the two are billed as two parts of a single hero, at least so Neil Gaiman claims in the introduction to the audiobook, so perhaps there is no preferred character and Mouser's tale was easier to tell because how do you drag out a torture scene for more than a chapter without risking becoming Hostel?
But once the two finally meet in Lankhmar the story becomes a hilarious adventure of these two near-idiots almost getting themselves killed because we all do stupid shit when we're drunk. I mean, I've been drinking tonight and look at how long this post is. And really that is the most refreshing thing about this story.
It's not pretending to be anything but exactly what it is.
This is the origin story of two coughcough "heroes" cough and the tale of how they met and fell in with each other. It's an adventure story with sword fights, fell sorcery, betrayal, love and romance, friendship, revenge, and anything else you could want out of a fantasy story except for one simple unecessary thing.
To diverge for a moment, I listen to a lot of podcasts. Specifically, podcasts that have various narrators reading contemporary science fiction and fantasy stories. I listen to Skyboat Media's Nightmare and Lightspeed Magazines' Podcasts, Escape Artists (Escape Pod, Podcastle, and Pseudopod), Strange Horizons, Clarkesworld, and others but the others shan't be named as they don't have this problem. The problem these stories have is that the majority of their stories are trying to make a statement about something. They have this issue in modern society they want to comment on, or this agenda they want to push, or this problem they want to try to fix, or they're just blatant propaganda pieces in some instances. Now some of these publications have this problem more than others, with Skyboat Media being the 'worst offenders' in my opinion due to their Women/People of Color Destroy Science Fiction/Horror series.'
Because of the message these publications are platforming with their magazines/podcasts, the quality of fiction does suffer. I mentioned Wilson's Singularity in my last podcast, which was essentially about how gay people made an AI that took over the world and ushered in the communist utopia. It was a blatant propaganda piece that essentially called everyone who didn't like communism stupid and was one of the most horrendously ignorant things I've ever had the displeasure of listening to. It was also completely devoid of fun.
Now occasionally there will be a story that doesn't suffer from the obvious, ham-fisted political message within it. Salto Mortal, again from Lightspeed, is a very enjoyable story that was obviously a commentary on illegal immigration; and possibly Donald Trump's 'wall' idea but I don't want to ascribe to intent what might be a coincidence. But the vast majority of the time stories with political motivation behind them aren't fun to read, they feel condescending, and they're just plain preachy and annoying.
With Swords & Deviltry you will get precisely none of that. Oh, I'm sure that if you want to dig into the text and force your pet political issue into the story, you could totally do that and probably make a convincing case for yourself. However, that is not in the story itself. You have to put that there, because Fritz Leiber damn sure didn't. And because of that there is no point in this story where I felt preached to, where I felt I was being talked down to, where I felt there was an attempt to make me feel stupid or immoral for not thinking a certain way/subscribing to a certain political ideology. It was just a fun fucking romp through a fantasy land I hadn't been to yet. Everything was new, exciting, and completely subverted everything I'd assumed fantasy literature should be and frankly got me out of the rut in my thinking I'd been in for years with regards to that subject.
Because this story was written in that time of great misogyny and racism, the late 1950's through to 1970, the language can be a bit archaic. But I would characterize this book as bordering somewhere between sword & sorcery and high fantasy. It sits comfortably in the S&S genre because, well, it started it, and it could be considered on the lower end of high fantasy because of the approach taken with regards to the epic prose Leiber sometimes used. It's better than the Drizzt Do'Urden books, but not quite as good as the Thomas Covenant novels. Basically what this all boils down to is that unless you're a well-read person, expect to learn some new words. You shouldn't need to keep a thesaurus or dictionary handy, but you might find a couple gems that aren't in common usage anymore.
All in all, Swords & Deviltry is a masterful fantasy story that deftly ties these two characters destinies together and wraps it all up in a neat little package with a bow on top and a complimentary jug of wine. I highly recommend the audiobook version because Jonathan Davis' narration is a joy to listen to and he does an excellent job, but if you're more into print or ebooks then go with what you feel.
Buy this book, read it, keep it, lend it out to your friends, and give it to your children in the future. If anything this book shows that fantasy literature can be fun and high-flying while also being base and indulging in life's more worldly pursuits.