Of Swords and Deviltry

I’m reading The First Book of Lankhmar at the moment, and I have to say it’s bloody good fun.

Fritz Leiber’s tales of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, barbarian warrior and thief/dark magician, are vibrant, adventurous and ever so slightly rude, taking you off to distant exotic lands full of evil dukes and treacherous beauties, shoving you right into the middle of fist fights and duels, while at the same time tipping a sly wink to the pettiness of human nature; even in the wild worlds of Nehwon, people are ultimately badly behaved and out for what they can get.

I stumbled across this (huge) collection of stories thanks to a number of articles I read concerning “sword and sorcery”. I had come to the conclusion, to my own vague surprise, that The Steel Walk falls firmly within this genre, when I had never really thought about what “sword and sorcery” actually entails. And you will find that any blog on the subject will mention Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, and with good reason; there are swords aplenty, and dark magic, betrayal and lust and greed, and all the really good stuff that epic fantasy sometimes forgets about when its off on quests to defeat The Big Bad Thing in the East/West/Alternate Dimension.

Working my way through it whilst trying to ignore the cover (jeez, the cover is ugly. I have no shame at all about being a fantasy reader, and will gladly wave about on the bus a book with any number of dragons or scantily clad ladies on the front, but this is almost too embarrassing even for me. The huge tattooed man in the foreground looks more like he belongs in Eastenders, whereas the tiny bloke in the background looks a wee bit like Richard O’Brien about to whip his harmonica out. Neither remotely resembles the two main characters, so it is all a bit mystifying. Why, Fantasy Masterworks, why?)- I found myself vaguely reminded of Terry Pratchett. It’s the barbarian heroes, of course, and the Thieves Guild, and the dangerous magic. What it is, of course, is the source. Pratchett without the satire (but certainly not without any humour; Fafhrd’s dealings with young ladies had me chuckling out loud more than once), and it’s a joy to realise that the Discworld had a bigger, juicier older brother… Silly me.

These are the pitfalls and joys of accidentally working your way backwards through a genre, I suppose; I can only say that I wish I’d met up with our young warrior and thief much, much sooner…

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