Swords and Deviltry, a novel by Fritz Leiber

A reread after many years.  I think it’s the first serious fantasy novel I got seriously invested in after hearing The Hobbit read to me; if I had to guess a year I’d say 1979 (it was a Christmas present) but I’m not certain. It’s one of those books that I was “to young to read” but the parts I didn’t understand pushed me to new places.

One of the mysteries of Leiber is his relative forgottenness. We hear about Asimov, Heinlein, de Camp, Zelazny and so on, heroes of SF's silver age but Leiber never seems to get the mention (apart from Michael Chabon's pastiche version). New generations haven't taken him up and it's worth asking why. 

It’s a book of three linked novellas written between 1957 and 1970. It’s the first in a series and introduces the paired adventurers, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, fighters and thieves who will wander through their fantastic world of Nehwon (“no-when”), always returning to their spiritual home, the vast decadent city-state of Lankhmar.

The characters are introduced separately. There’s the story of Fafhrd’s coming of age as a tribesman in the subarctic forests and mountains of Cold Corner. It’s a psychologically fraught moment to say the least; caught in a web of mother- and father-figures, he flees south with a touring actress. The Gray Mouser grows up in a southern forest country as a wizard’s apprentice, revenge-murders the local tyrannical Duke and flees with his daughter. They meet up in Lankhmar and bond when their respective girlfriends are murdered.

On rereading I can still respect it; I’m glad it’s what I got into. It feels - capacious is the word I’m coming up with. Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser are fledgling heroes but they aren’t innocents, blank slates awaiting the easy tip-in victories of a Hero’s Journey. They’re allowed the space to be terrible people, they have a human and distinctly masculine cruelty and selfishness. In that respect it’s well outside the extruded product of the Campbell-age manufactured blockbuster, which is maybe one clue to its lack of longevity.

Fafhrd flees from his pregnant girlfriend; he lies, he’s confused, lustful, lashes out in ways he doesn’t understand. He wants to leave the place he grew up but half the time he knows it’s stupid. When he walks away from his mother and girlfriend it’s numbing, agonizing and thrilling. When he walks away from his pregnant girlfriend it's not played for tears; his parting shot is, “Yes. You’re mine forever, and I’m yours. Your son is mine. I’ll never have another Snow Clan wife. We’re married.”

And his mother tells him “There is a witchy cold that follow you anywhere in Nehwon. Wherever ice once went, witchery can send it again” and she’s right, he’s getting away but leaving flesh behind and he’s never going to feel entirely okay. It’s not fixable.

The Gray Mouser’s story is a revenge-murder using a sadistic man’s daughter as a sorcerous proxy, weaponizing a family drama against him. It’s really unclear whether he likes her or if she’s a plaything. For me the heart of the story is the girl who sort of half-plays a mouse-innocent but has episodes of controlled violence that she doesn’t really accept as part of herself. But she’s not the made-up girl-murderer of contemporary fashion, it’s more a matter of affect; some people have cold streaks in them that they don’t know what to do about.

And there's the writing, the range of vocabulary and invention that make you aware that Leiber himself had a varied life; he studied as a priest, did graduate work in philosophy, acted in Shakespearean drama, was a chess champion, fenced (the swordplay is lovingly described); had a dad named Jonquil. He can describe idiosyncratic moods, make up convincingly foreign countries; he has a vocabulary and referential knowledge he can flex and an inventiveness that isn’t imitative.

It’s not all good news, I’m bracketing the hell out of the period gender politics, and there’s a winking in-crowd cuteness to the writing of that period (especially around sex we get a childish-icky Piers Anthony vibe), a preciousness to the language, cloistered as it is in a fan culture which is (in the nature of things) rather in love with itself.

Why don't we hear about it now? Maybe because it goes to places people would rather not hear about, and it's never going to get its big-money CG reboot, it's far too risky and distinctly not written as a swing-for-the-fences sales engine, not written for those adult fantasy readers who fancy their own innocence. But is for older kids, ones who want to feel what it's like growing up.