by Fritz Leiber
The first book in the revered series is, like the rest of the books, actually a collection of shorter works. This one consists of one short story, “Induction,” two novellas, The Snow Women and Ill Met in Lankmar, and the novelette The Unholy Grail.
“Induction” serves as the briefest of overviews, introducing the two characters over about one page of text.
The Snow Women tells the story of Fafhrd and his escape from his tribe where is mother leads and is a powerful sorcerer. He leaves behind a woman pregnant with his child and flees the murderous intent of tribe members and the wrath of his mother with the woman he has fallen in love with, a scheming actor and former prostitute.
The Unholy Grail is the story of the Gray Mouser, a student of the local warlock and torn between light and dark magic. When his master is killed by the Duke, the Gray Mouser sets out in a rush of ill-conceived revenge and ends up being tortured by the Duke while his daughter watches, with his only hope of escape being dark magic channeled through the girl.
So far, the two previous longer works are good, but neither fulfill the legendary promise these stories have grown to command among readers. This last one is the first tale showcasing the mastery the author is so capable of employing, and the reason these two characters became cemented in history.
Ill Met in Lankmar is the story of the two rogues, both escaped from their homes and living in the city of Lankmar with their first loves, meeting in a battle with thieves. Over the course of the battle to two young men realize they are kindred spirits, and after looting the unconscious victims the two embark on an epic drinking binge to introduce each others’ loves and get to know each other better. Over the course of the evening the woman pressure them into doing more about the local Thieves’ Guild than they’ve done previously, so they take a drunken journey to disastrous consequence.
The final tale, Ill Met in Lankamr, won the Nebula Award and Hugo awards, and The Unholy Grail was nominated. But’s it’s this last that truly reveals what readers are to expect over the next few volumes, and with the way the story unfolded, the two title characters should be permanently linked with bonds that never dissipate. This one will light you up, so if you find yourself wandering away from the stories at any point during the first few, hang in there—the payoff is coming.
In addition to excellent plotting, showcased mainly in the final entry, these stories exhibit a command of the language most of us can only hope to one day attain, giving us dark fantasy with a poet’s rhythmic grace:
“Not one move in our frostbit lives but is strictured by a mad god’s laws, which we call customs, and by black-handed irrationalities from which there is no escape.”
He’s also not afraid to let his heroes burst into grim action, samurai style:
“Death no longer stood at his side. Death had stepped inside him.”
But most importantly, he allows his characters inhibiting his dark, oppressing world, to maintain a necessary sense of humor if they are to continue living in it:
“Drink may slow a man’s sword-arm and soften his blows a bit, but it sets his wits ablaze and fires his imagination, and those are the qualities we’ll need tonight.”
Fritz Leiber was an incontrovertible genius, mastering science fiction and horror. With the future hinted from these first Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories, and the expertise with which the final story was delivered, it seems he’d mastered fantasy as well. Expectations for the rest of the series are sky-high.
“Grown folk go blind, lost in their toil and dreams, unless they have a profession such as thieving which keeps them mindful of things as they really are.”