I grew up reading a lot of classic pulp fantasy and sci-fi, as well as authors who were inspired by that generation of writing, and yet, somehow, I don’t know that I read much by Fritz Leiber, one of the most iconic fantasy writers of all time. If I did read much from the man who coined the phrase “Swords and sorcery,” it hasn’t stuck with me, because almost everything about Swords and Deviltry – the first collection of stories about Fafhrd the barbarian and the Gray Mouser, a magic-wielding thief – felt new and unexpected to me – in a very good way.
Now, to say that Swords and Deviltry – a collection of four short stories, two of which provide individual backstories, and one of which includes the fateful meeting and first adventure of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser – feels “new and unexpected” may give you the sense that this is new and revolutionary stuff. It’s not, or at least, it’s not now; there’s little denying that this is the foundation of so much fantasy that came after it, setting the groundwork for generations of writers to follow in his footsteps. Written in the late 1950’s, the stories here are pure, old-school pulp fantasy, with epic heroes, fantastic settings, complex names that feel a bit over-the-top, and more – in other words, if you’ve ever played Dungeons and Dragons, you’ll feel right at home. And yes, they’re dated, in some ways, although surprisingly less than you might fear; the casual inclusion of allusions to Islamic faith surprised me in a good way, and while there’s still some of the rampant sexuality of pulp fantasy, it’s far less skeezy and misogynistic than so much of that tends to be, giving the female characters more personality than you’d expect from the period, to say nothing of the agency they display over their own lives and choices. (Indeed, even the first society we see here – from whence Fafhrd originates – is a matriarchal society in every imaginable way.)
No, what I didn’t expect about Swords and Deviltry was the light tone Leiber brings to bear here. Much of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser’s first meeting is done in a gloriously light tone, from their unexpected alliance as they both attempt to rob a merchant to a night of heavy drinking and very bad plan making. There’s a sense of wry fun to the enterprise that’s impossible not to enjoy, and it really sets the books apart from what I expected. There’s a sense that Leiber wanted his fantasy to be, well, more grounded than so much of the genre can be, finding the quiet humor and dry wit that most people really have in life. And the result is both fun and exciting, mixing great action sequences with fun dialogue, and letting the plot unfold at a perfect pace to keep you drawn in. (And the end of “Ill Met in Lankhmar” packs an unexpected wallop, as the boys drop the jokes and banter, and unleash hell on those that have wronged them.) I had a blast with it, and feel like it’s every bit as good now as it was when it was written, over 60 years ago – it’s still fresh, fun, exciting, and holds its own, not just as a historical artifact, but as its own wonderful creation.