Saturday, October 8, 2016

Swords Against Death!

The second Fafhrd and Gray Mouser volume Swords Against Death contains the oldest stuff, the material which started the duo's long run under the hand of co-creator Fritz Leiber. Most of the stories here appeared in Unknown, a vintage pulp put out by Street and Smith and which was intended by its editor John W. Campbell as a companion to the harder science fiction magazine Astounding (eventually known as Analog and still published today).  

Unknown only lasted a few years and didn't offer much if anything in the way of cover art for much of that brief run which ended in part due to the paper crunch during the war years.

"The Circle Curse" (1970, first publication)

In this story we encounter the duo after the tragic deaths of their loves and they are seeking solace in travel and adventure. They encounter the two sorcerers who will influence them throughout the rest of their lives - Ningauble of the Seven Eyes and Sheelba of the Eyeless Face. They wander around Newhon for several years and then head back to Lankhmar at long last when the pain of their loss has lost some of its immediacy.

"The Jewels in the Forest" (novelette 1939 Unknown, as "Two Sought Adventure")

In their debut story Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser seek treasure and find it in a stone tower which is itself a great danger to them and anyone who enters. It's a puzzle and requires wits and brawn to overcome. It turns out this team is an ideal combination to solve the puzzle.

"Thieves' House" (novelette 1943 Unknown)

Fafhrd and Mouser go to the heart of the Thieves Guild to steal a deadly skull which itself is even more powerful than even they could imagine. This story is really quite spooky and lurid in many ways.

"The Bleak Shore" (1940 Unknown)

Still seeking some measure of solace the two sail west as far as they can go and then a bit farther until they find a most deserted landscape. In this story we meet Ourph the Mingol who serves the duo and it is through his eyes we see our distraught heroes.

"The Howling Tower" (1941 Unknown)

Returning to Lankhmar by land from the west they encounter a haunted tower. This is about what fear can do to unravel a life, or many lives for that matter.

"The Sunken Land" (1942 Unknown)

They find the submerged land of Symorgia, a land Fafhrd's people had once upon a time raided. There's treasure there, but death also in abundance. One of the weirder stories in a collection marked by strangeness.

"The Seven Black Priests" (1953 Other Worlds)

Fafhrd and Mouser have to battle seven deadly priests who are trying to pry a jewel the duo have stolen.They lose but it's fun watching them try.

"Claws from the Night" (1951 Suspense as "Dark Vengeance")

A deadly cult has taken hold of Lankhmar and the people try to defend themselves in weird ways from birds who strike to steal jewels and gems. Our heroes step in to end the weird threat.

"The Price of Pain-Ease" (1970 first publication)

One of the best stories has Fahrd and Mouser steal an entire house, but even that inspired larceny doesn't spare them visits from the ghosts of the two girls they still mourn. To put that behind them they seek out the Mask of Death, a quest each goes on alone but end up working together. They barely survive, but that's actually quite often the case. 

"Bazaar of the Bizarre" (1963 Fantastic)

Mouser comes under the spell of a weird curio shop which seems to offer strange treasures and beautiful women but seems actually to hold only smelly trash and potentially death. Fafhrd has to work overtime to save his partner from his own delusions which will kill him quite completely. 

This is a solid collection of stories composed over several years and assembled here in a rough and tumble chronology that only works if you squint. That said, each story does seem to offer up the team in proper heroic mode, though the newer yarns are quick to point up the humor at the expense of the adventure. Leiber's ability to render detail is most evident in these stories and they are each and everyone a lovely morsel.

More to come tomorrow.

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