Hello everyone, and welcome back to the review series! I betcha thought this was going away, huh? Well despite my terminal tardiness and rampant distraction and procrastination, I have returned! Continuing on with my spotty and slipshod read-through of the Appendix N novels, today I'm bringing you the second collection of Fafhrd & The Gray Mouser stories, Swords Against Death. But before we get into that, I do have a couple of corrections to make from my last review in this series.
1. The first volume, Swords & Deviltry, was in fact not a linear novel, it was a collection of short stories ranging over quite some span of years of Leiber's career. I merely thought it was a linear novel because, in listening to the audiobook, I couldn't tell that the stories were actually short stories rather than chapters, and I wrote that post up without doing adequate research. Apologies all around for that.
2. The Audible list of the Fafhrd & The Gray Mouser stories I linked to is not only the collected works in the Swords series of anthologies, but also the individual stories themselves sold as stand-alones. So save yourself some money and just buy the ones that are more than two hours each and you'll get all the stories nicely curated for you.
I think that's all the hard corrections I need to make, so soft corrections will be interspersed throughout the review. And with that out of the way, on with the show.
Given that the narrator of the first book, Jonathan Davis, is either a very lucky man or has a very good agent, he recorded all of the Fafhrd & The Gray Mouser audiobooks, and given the two I've listened to since my original post, I can safely say that everything I said there still stands. You won't be getting a slipshod narration or uneven editing or sound design. If you're just hopping on this particular car of the Appendix N train going around the internet, you can find my evaluation of his work here in the original post. The short version is, it's quality, go buy it if for nothing other than the narration itself.
Now onto the text. This series of stories was far more what I was, well, not exactly expecting. Expecting after finding out Swords & Deviltry was an anthology and not a novel, put it like that. Whereas in S&D you had a very linear storyline, with sequential stories picking up more or less where the last left off, with this you get far more of a picture of just how many adventures Fafhrd and The Mouser had, many of them without us knowing anything about them. At least at this point in the series. These are just the ones we're lucky enough to read. I suppose they're the most important ones, but who can fathom the mind of the author? In any event, the stories are fairly sequential so far as a timeline goes, but the ones near the end could be placed pretty much anywhere in F&GM's timeline and still fit.
Leiber really did outdo himself with these stories. This has to be the most classic D&D thing I've ever read. It reads like a series of encounter modules, at least on one level, and the action doesn't slow down for anything, so you'd better hang on tight. It would be 100% within the realm of possibility to take these stories and turn them into one-shot game sessions for your tabletop group, and I wouldn't be surprised if some enterprising soul in the dark mists of the net had done just that. This collection makes it completely clear why Gygax included these stories in the Appendix N list. If you're looking for some inspiration for your D&D/Pathfinder/Traveler/[insert your preferred RPG rule set here], you could do far, far worse than Swords Against Death. From buildings that kill to obscure mountain priests that attack from blizzards to lands beneath the sea to a good old-fashioned dungeon crawl through the Lankhmar Thieves Guild, this has everything an aspiring (or even experienced) GM could ask for and more. If you're looking to get some inspiration in the spirit of what Appendix N was originally compiled for, look no further, buy this book.
There are also many staples here that very possibly influenced the structure of D&D, at least as I've known it. Though I'm dead certain other writers did this before Leiber, there are a few magical items that have names, like the Blindfold of True Seeing, which may have been a key influence on named magical items such as Blackrazor, Whelm, and Wave from the White Plume Mountain AD&D module. It also keeps the mystery of these magical items quite nicely. Nowadays in D&D when you can find a magical weapon for your character, or a cloak of invisibility from just about any dungeon (if your DM is particularly nice), in these stories these items are beyond rare. So rare that the mighty and mysterious wizards Sheelba of the Eyeless Face and Ningauble of the Seven Eyes have to hand deliver them to Fafhrd personally, and take them away again when he's done using them. They don't become part of his kit, as they would in your standard 3.5 and beyond D&D game. Once again this could provide inspiration for a D&D campaign wherein the characters are given magical items (while the rest of their kit is run-of-the-mill) that aren't insanely powerful, but will provide them an edge in that particular encounter, and then have to be taken back again by the giver because leaving these in the hands of mortals is too great a risk. As I said, there's a lot of notes that can be taken from Leiber's work.
So far as the title of the collection goes, these stories fit the bill of sale you were shown in the shop. We (readers) kind of expect story anthologies to have some relationship to the title of the anthology, at least when it isn't something like, "Horror in the Museum and other stories." As long as Horror in the Museum is in that anthology it fits the bill. But the titles of these anthologies in the Fafhrd and The Gray Mouser series are meant to mean something, and so far they do.
These stories very much are about our ahem "heroes" coming to grips with death and fighting against it. I won't tell you how the first collection ends, but this one picks up precisely where that one left off and continues in a more or less linear fashion. The Two leave Lankhmar and vow never to return, and they quickly (for us) or not so quickly (for them) realize the futility of this vow. Suffice to say they are wrapped up in the untimely death of some loved ones of theirs, and they're having a hard time dealing with it. So in an effort to come to escape the constant reminder of this they seek adventure in the sprawling land of Nehwon.
And adventure they find. The first story also introduces Sheelba of the Eyeless Face and Ningauble of the Seven Eyes, two wizards who take our dynamic duo under their wings. Sometimes this works out for the better as in Bazaar of the Bizarre, sometimes this works out to everybody's detriment as in The Price of Pain-Ease. But this anthology takes us across Nehwon to many remote locations, including the Nehwonian version of Atlantis where Fafhrd is kidnapped and forced to become a raider of the sunken land.
Another refreshing aspect of this collection is that Leiber's humor is in full force. Despite the heavy nature of the subject matter and of the inner conflict our miscreants face, Leiber manages to insert jokes to lighten the mood, for laughter really is the best medicine. Yes, Fafhrd does get lost in the Thieves Guild and wind up seeing some things that make him pee himself just a little. But there are also plenty of opportunities for Mouser to be a complete and total goober as well. The best is the final story, Bazaar of the Bizarre, where despite the clear and present threat to not only our lovable criminal scum but existence itself, Mouser still manages to get drunk and make fun of Fafhrd while the barbarian is risking his own skin to save his friend. Leiber's wit cuts like a knife, and all the better that his targets are his ostensible heroes.
This, I think, is one of the most endearing thing about Fafhrd and the Mouser as characters. They're so very, very human. They fuck up. They do stupid shit. A lot. They get crazy ideas in their heads and have to see them through to the end. And as someone who's driven more than an hour for beer on a Sunday, I enjoy these types of foibles quite a bit. Because despite all that, despite the carousing they engage in, despite all the womanizing they do, despite the fact that they're not the brightest cookies in the tool shed, they are still good people deep down. They don't hurt people for no reason, they don't kill people out of hand for pissing them off, and they stole a house that one time. No really, they actually stole a whole entire house. But there is absolutely that core of heroism to Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser that would make even the likes of perpetual do-gooder and stick-in-the-mud Drizzt Do'Urden proud to call them comrades-in-arms.
And then report them to the local authorities when they held up the pub for all their best wine.
Verdict: Go buy it. This continues to be some of (if not the) best fantasy I've ever read in my long journey through that genre. You won't regret this purchase.