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The Swords Of Lankhmar (1968)

The Swords of Lankhmar (1968)
4.08 of 5 Votes: 1
0441080383 (ISBN13: 9780441080380)
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The Swords Of Lankhmar (1968)
The Swords Of Lankhmar (1968)

About book: The Swords of Lankhmar, fifth volume in Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and Gray Mouser books, stands out among the others by being the only novel in the series. It has often been remarked upon that this form is not really suited to the tales Leiber tries to tell, and I am finding myself in agreement with this. Not that The Swords of Lankhmar wasn’t a fun to read, but it does drag a bit in places, in particular during the sea voyage described in its first part which is almost a standalone tale.Most of that voyage is given to Fafhrd’s and the Gray Mouser’s courting of a female passenger, trying to outdo each other in gaining her affections and generally behaving in a way that is very reminiscent of adolescent teenagers. This is somewhat mitigated by the sheer outrageousness of their behaviour which raises suspicion that maybe they are not quite serious about it all and only play-acting to pass the time on a boring sea-voyage, but even so it does appear rather out of character – while this is certainly not the first time that our two protagonists have fallen for a pretty face I cannot remember any previous instance where they forgot themselves quite as much as here with Hesvit.Although I have to admit that I found Hesvit rather enjoyable myself – it is clear pretty early on that she is up to no good and one of the novel’s bad guys, and while she does not exactly have a lot of character depth beyond her being evil for evil’s sake, what there is is quite fascinating, mysterious and aloof, always dancing just out of everyone’s grasp and generally a very colourful villain who gives our heroes – the Mouser in particular – quite the run for their money.The novel becomes markedly more lively from its second third onwards, when the location shifts to Lankhmar. Or at least the Mouser’s location shifts, for once again our protagonists are going separate ways for most of the story. Unlike previous instances, though, it has to be said that the split in The Swords of Lankhmar is not quite symmetrical – while Fafhrd’s long detour towards Lankhmar is mostly devoid of events and, while fun to read, is only marginally related to the central plot, the Gray Mouser has all the excitement, magic and adventure in his chapters. He really steals the spotlight from Fafhrd this time round and The Swords of Lankhmar is very much the Gray Mouser’s novel – which, in a way, is even fitting, seeing how the novel’s main antagonists are rats.The Swords of Lankhmar is the most fanciful instalment in the Fafhrd and Gray Mouser series (or the silliest, if you are feeling less generous) – with people shrinking down to the size of and dressing up as rats, rats growing to the size of men and getting into fencing duels and lots of other bizarre and colourful shenanigans, the reader at times almost feels like having strayed into a Sword & Sorcery version of E.T.A. Hoffmann’s Nußknacker und Mäusekönig. And maybe this is another reason why this novel made me once again think a lot of Terry Pratchett – at times, The Swords of Lankhmar seems to switch entirely into comical mode and Leiber seems to play it entirely for laughs, even more so than in stories like “Lean Times in Lankhmar” where the sharp satirical thrust kept things from becoming merely quirky, humoristic Fantasy. Which is not a bad thing in and of itself, but I have to admit that at times I rather missed the realistic edge that usually even the most outré and over the top Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories have somewhere. There is almost no sense of menace in this novel, and the villains, while bizarre and fascinating never really come across as threatening.This installment of Fafhrd and Gray Mouser is a bit of a mixed bag, then; it does not quite live up to the best volumes in the series but still is very enjoyable to read. The Swords of Lankhmar is also the final volume of the original series, the remaining two volumes are later additions and everyone seems to agree that they mark a distinct drop in quality. Only one way to find whether that is true or not, I suppose…

When I first started reading Leiber, my expectations were pretty low. He is often praised along with the other 'giants', but the fantasy genre is awash with unwarranted praise: the barely-differentiated is lauded as revolutionary, and many of its 'giants' are giant only in disappointment. But Leiber surprised me. Throughout the Lankhmar series, he has shown a lively, stylized voice, an eye for character and suspense, and an evocative sense of wonder.Unfortunately, he begins to fall off his pace in this volume. He is fearless in his approach, which is great when he's on top of his game, but when he errs, causes him to stumble incautiously. Likewise, his light, laughing tone can be asset or flaw, dependent on how solid the pacing is beneath it.Early on, we get an uncharacteristically wild choice, almost a non sequitur, which never ties back into the plot. The entire structure is unusual for the series, eschewing loosely-connected episodes for a more linear novel. The length and focus on one single story doesn't mesh well with Leiber's lilting style, and his imaginative, sometimes lovely asides are sadly absent.I've seen the same thing happen before, from Mignola to Poe: the change from short and vibrant stories to long, sustained plot arcs is not easy to manage. Leiber doesn't really update his style to match the new length, which leaves us with a long, overly-involved short story.The reason for greater length in writing is to add more depth, allowing the story to unfold gradually. Previously, these Lankhmar collections have achieved depth by the wild variance of the stories. Though all are loosely connected in an overarching plot, each one presents an opportunity for Leiber to play with tone, setting, character, and purpose in a different way. This makes sense, because they were written at different times--sometimes decades apart--at different points in Leiber's career.This untethered, multihued style of world-building is very Howardian, and Howard used it deliberately to let his world unfold naturally, through many tales, only vaguely connected, filling some areas in with great detail, and leaving others as half-heard mysteries. Unlike the straightforward, encyclopedic style of most doorstop fantasies (appendices included, thank you J.R.R.), we learn about the worlds of Howard and Leiber like students of history, which makes sense, because it was a voracious study of detached pieces of history lent whimsy to both authors' creations.It's a pity that he abandons this organic system for something so linear, especially as his struggles with pacing undermine his wit. With a less varied tale, he has less to play with, and starts to resemble his later imitators, like Pratchett, writing a fairly simple, amusing story with a few high points, but numerous low points where humor is not adequately supported by insight.There are also some problems with sexual politics here, which is all the more disappointing because of Leiber's previously good track record with women who were both independent and unique. It's not a complete reversal, but Leiber's focus grows considerably more one-sided, and consequently, his women lose dimension.This is amplified by the rather silly fetishism which continually crops up throughout the book, yet the sexuality is rarely either humorous, realistic, or enticing enough to overcome its superfluity. I'd heard that a previous Leiber fantasy story had been censored for overt sexuality, and I was disappointed to hear it, but reading this book, perhaps it was for the best. Sexuality shouldn't be edited out, but awkward writing should.Overall, it's not a bad book. even though it isn't Leiber's best, it's still solid, with good high points, and fun to read. Unfortunately, his later works grow even more stilted, sexually awkward, and drawn out. This one, at least, has a rising plot and some amusing twists, which cannot be said of the books that close out the series.My List of Suggested Fantasy Books
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Lee Broderick
The only novel in Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser series can occasionally seem stretched - the descriptions of palace life, 'Lankhmar Below' and the sea journey, in particular, appear a little overextended; as if Leiber is struggling with the longer format. Interspersed is the usual humour, action and all-too-human character of his heroes.The middle of the book, in the body of Glipkerio and the palace, owes something of a debt to Gormenghast, although without Mervyn Peake's distinctive style. The end, however, delivers Lieber's trademark clashing action for a thrilling climax.
I can see why Neil Gaiman felt that Fritz Leiber deserved to have some of his work brought to the attention of 21st century readers in audio form. This book is a delight, a mix of classic swords-and-sorcery adventure, sardonic, dark fairytale, and imaginative world creation, with a little tales-of-ribaldry kinkyness thrown in. While it's fifth in a series, I don’t see any reason you can’t start here. The hairy barbarian Fafhrd and the small, quick-witted Gray Mouser are two instantly familiar roguish heroes, no introduction required beyond the first chapter, and Lieber quickly pulled me into their world with his deliciously visual, textured descriptions and playful, literate command of language. Fans of Jack Vance will find his style familiar, though it’s less absurdist.The story here has Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser low on cash, and compelled to take a commission guarding a grain barge for the amusingly decadent ruler of the impressive, seedy city of Lankhmar. Once out to sea, they learn that their convoy is also carrying a not particularly innocent maiden and her collection of preternaturally intelligent rats. Soon, things go amiss, and our heroes find themselves headed, by separate routes, back to Lankhmar, which is now having some serious rat problems. Any not just any rats, but ones that seem to be more and more humanlike, and to be coming from somewhere under the city. I won’t spoil what happens next, but before all is said and done, there will be duels, ill-advised romances, spying in magical disguise, battles, grotesque sorcerers, strange creatures, otherworldly travelers, and a few mildly naughty scenes.IMO, this is fantasy that’s a happy medium between the grimness of Howard / ponderousness of Tolkien and the silliness of Vance, pulpy but actually creative. It’s not hard to to see the influence Leiber had on more modern writers in the genre, from Terry Pratchett to David Eddings to China Mieville (particularly the weird romance) to Neil Gaiman himself. Audiobook narrator Jonathan Davis does a fine job as usual, his calm, arch style a great fit for Leiber’s writing (though his scene switches are a little abrupt).
When I saw that The Swords of Lankhmar was a novel instead of a collection of short stories like the other Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser books, I was a bit apprehensive. I was worried that it wouldn't translate well into the longer form and, well, I was kind of right. The beginning part of the book doesn't seem to have much to do with the rest other than to introduce some characters and to separate the duo, the middle drags on...but the ending is a rolicking good time up there with the best that Leiber wrote.Anyway, I'm getting ahead of myself. The Swords of Lankhmar is about a threat to the existence of the City of the Black Toga itself, and I'll commit a small spoiler and mention that it's the very rats that swarm beneath the city. And honestly, I spent most of the book rooting for the rats to win. They actually seemed to work together and have a relatively benevolent society, and their desires for Lankhmar are pretty benign. All they want is for the city's dogs and cats and ferrets to be expelled and the inhabitants of Lankhmar to provide a grain tribute to the rats. They'd probably run Lankhmar a lot better than the humans do, since the Lankhmarese seem to spend most of their time trying to cheat, rob, or kill each other.It wouldn't be one of my reviews about the Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser books without talking about the language, and for this book, I have an appropriately evocative passage:Their behavior made old folks and storytellers and thin-bearded squinting scholars fearfully recall the fables that there had once been a humped city of rats large as men where imperial Lankhmar had now stood for three-score centuries; that rats had once had a language and government of their own and a single empire stretching to the borders of the unknown world, coexistent with man's cities but more unified; and that beneath the stoutly mortared stones of Lankhmar, far below their customary burrowings and any delvings of man, there was a low-ceilinged rodent metropolis with streets and homes and glow-lights all its own and granaries stuffed with stolen grain.See? Even the book admits that the rats are better at working together than the humans are. It's especially obvious because this book finally introduces us to the inner workings of the government of Lankhmar.Well, "working" is kind of a strong term. As near as I can tell, the Overlord (and now I understand the proximate inspiration for City-State Of The Invincible Overlord) kind of faffs around while the actual ruling of the city is done by a mentioned-but-never-detailed Supreme Council. Though admittedly, that may just be because of the current inhabitant of the seashell-carven throne.The Gods of Lankhmar are finally revealed, and it's quite obvious why the inhabitants of the city are so afraid of them:(view spoiler)[The Gods of Lankhmar are the ancestors of the city, whose mouldering, mummified corpses reside in the temple at the end of the Street of the Gods, awaiting those moments when the city is in dire danger to stride forth and display their wrath.On the other hand, their actual behavior is pretty disappointing. They stride out, incinerate some rats, the rats concentrate on them and nearly overwhelm them, and they head back into their temple and sulk. And the Lankhmarese are afraid of them...why, exactly? I guess the animated bodies of your own species are scarier than those of other species, which is why the rats can stand against the Gods of Lankhmar without any real trouble. (hide spoiler)]
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