Saturday, 25 August 2012

Lankhmar by Fritz Leiber

A thick book of stories, this volume is packed with some of the best sword and sorcery I've read in a long time and really confirms that Leiber was one of the stars in the genre's firmament.  Written as short stories, which suits both the sword and sorcery genre and the characters, the narratives within have a different texture to those I've read to other writers of the genre, whilst losing nothing of the strangeness or wildness that make it one of the more interesting sections of the fantasy genre.

The book starts surprisingly slowly and the first story is perhaps the weakest part of the book; it drags a little as the Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser are introduced and are set upon their paths.  The writing here is self indulgent and woolly, and it's a relief when the characters arrive in Lankhmar itself and meet, if only because the pace picks up and Leiber's use of language becomes much sharper.

Despite this I must say it's a shame that two interesting characters, the women the protagonists are romantically involved with, are killed off in the first story.  Partly, it feels cheap and cliched but also the women's deaths feel like a waste, they had potential and through their deaths it's squandered.  Even with the springboard it gives the characters for the other stories (as they're established as being driven by guilt), it's something of a blemish on the book.  Of course this may be because this sort of motivation for heroes has become ubiquitous across fantastic fiction, to the extent that within comics the "women in refrigerators" trope has been established, deconstructed and soundly mocked.

The rest of the stories are intriguing and make for more fulfilling reading.  The world that Leiber builds has a charm to it, full of wonders and mysteries.  Whether on the streets of Lankhmar itself, full of strangeness and charm but seedy and somehow realistic feeling, or out in the odder parts of Nehwon, the world feels solid and exciting.  The city, which forms the centre of the characters' world, is almost a third character and has a texture of its own.

In common with many sword and sorcery settings it feels as if it has been constructed piece by piece rather than as a whole; the stories have come first and there's no feeling that Leiber ever sat down and mapped the world out.  This doesn't matter because the stories are so intimate; they don't tackle the world spanning events, and the more political aspects of the protagonists' careers are skated over rather than fully explored.    This seems apposite as the heart of both characters is focused on adventure and the acquisition of gold, it's clear from the start that neither Fafhrd or the Mouser will end up as kings; neither of them are Conan.

This said they aren't Elric either and moments of melancholia are generally swept away by a fresh adventure or an opportunity to engage in cunning; even the prospect of being sent from Nehwon into the ancient world of our own Earth isn't enough to dampen their spirits for long (this is perhaps the bravest part of the book, and makes for an interesting read as Leiber adapts both his protagonists to their new setting, albeit briefly). It's clear that Leiber had fun creating challenges for the pair, which range from violence to the unfortunate side effects of spells, usually cast by the Mouser himself.

The characters are well drawn, multi faceted creations, far from being simple warriors they have other traits, from the Mouser's magic or Fafhrd's skald, bardic abilities.  This gives the characters so much depth and variety and allows them to exhibit a wonderful level of whimsy.  Their shared history is referenced in places, none so more effectively than the final story where they stage a duel for the benefit of rival employers to great effect.

If I had to sum up Lankhmar in a single word it would be charming; the work practically oozes charisma from the page and is such an easy read that twice whilst reading it I lost track of time, hardly a good thing on your morning commute.  This comes highly recommended for sword and sorcery fans.

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