Book Review: “Swords and Deviltry” by Fritz Leiber

Swords and Deviltry
by Fritz Leiber

Image from Goodreads
  • Goodreads
  • Series: Volume 1 of the Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser series, chronologically arranged
  • Pages: 254
  • Published: 1970
  • Spoiler-free Synopsis: Three stories to launch a series of epic adventures. “The Snow Women” introduces the young barbarian Fafhrd as he seeks to leave his oppressive and narrow-minded Snow Clan (and its women) for the glamours of “civilization” to the south. “The Unholy Grail” is the dark, painful tale of young Mouse’s escape from an evil duke and his transformation into the Gray Mouser. And “Ill Met at Lankhmar” sees the two meet and join forces to oppose the decadent city’s powerful and brutal Thieves’ Guild.
  • Reason for Beginning: Fritz Leiber is one of the founders of the sword and sorcery genre, and had a huge influence on Dungeons & Dragons. Figured I should read him for familiarity, and hoped he’d provide some good, old-fashioned adventuring.
  • Reason for Finishing: Mostly out of obligation, although the stories improve as they go.
  • Story Re-readability: None of them were good enough for me to care to reread, although “Ill Met at Lankhmar” is the best of the bunch. If you’re already a fan of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, then I could see you returning to it once in awhile.
  • Author Re-readability: Leiber’s prose is easy to read, though sometimes clunky. Most of the time his vocabulary is fairly simple and modern, but he’ll keep trying to slip in bigger words or attempts at archaic-sounding sentence structures that never quite work like he wants to. When he’s good, he’s fun and effective to read. When he slips up, he provokes groans and cringing. He is not a beautiful or subtle writer. The total effect on me is that I wouldn’t mind reading some more of his books, but neither would I be too sad if something prevented me from ever reading him again.
  • Recommendation: If you want to explore the origins of the sword and sorcery genre or Dungeons & Dragons, or if you have read later Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories but not their origin stories, then yes, this is a worthwhile book. If you’re only looking for a good fantasy adventure, then my recommendation is more muted, as you will see below. This book, I could take it or leave it.

Key Thoughts

The best part of this volume may very well be the blurb on the back cover. Behold:

Image by Me

What bombast! What stirring confidence! It makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. I hear it in the voice of an enthusiastic bard, with brazen trumpets blaring heroically as he proclaims the title. Of course I want to read a book with that description!

And for the most, part, that is the tone Leiber maintains throughout most of the book. These are Adventures Stories with Swords and Strange Magic. They are not deep epics like The Lord of the Rings, nor are they profound fairy stories like Lord Dunsany wrote. They are Conan the Barbarian with a better sense of humor and a lust for life.

And that’s fine! That’s what I wanted from this book. And to a certain extent, I was satisfied with the tone of these stories. There’s a focus on clear conflicts between characters and their actions that keeps the plot moving. Characters are allowed to make jokes, be funny, or just plain screw up in amusing ways. And yet it never descends completely into farce. The characters all deal with serious issues in their lives, and have genuine pain and grief behind them. At times the trauma is allowed to bubble to the surface where the characters can either vent it or try to bottle it up, and these moments encourage our sympathy. I can sense a genuinely great story ready to drop from Leiber’s pen (or typewriter) at any moment.

You may notice that I’ve been qualifying my praise so far. The tone is one thing, plots are another. Well then, let’s dig into the three stories, shall we?

“The Snow Women”
Published 1970

Fafhrd is a strapping 18 year-old bard, his mother is the domineering matriarch of the Snow Clan, and the leader of its witches, the Snow Women. The story chronicles Fafhrd’s struggles to honor his envious, controlling, and tradition-bound mother against his desire to break free and explore the delights of civilization, which is embodied by the actress-prostitute Vlana who is visiting the Snow Clan with a troupe of actors and merchants.

There just isn’t much to like in this story. All the characters are petty, jealous and selfish. The Snow Clan is ruled by their women, who all seem to be witches who will use their snow magic at the drop of a hat to attack their own men or any foreigners they don’t like. And the foreigners who visit are either unscrupulous merchants, conniving slave traders, or hedonists with no respect for local traditions.

Most disappointing of all is Fafhrd himself. Frankly, he’s a selfish, lying jerk. I can take all the other characters being bad sorts if our protagonist, who I’m supposed to be rooting for, is at heart trying to do the right thing. But in this story, I don’t think he is. There’s a pragmatism to him that I sometimes like: he isn’t afraid of a fair fight but has no interest in stupid displays of machismo that could get him uselessly killed, even if others call him a coward for running away. But his main reason for escaping his home is that he lusts for the glamour of “civilization,” which he sees embodied in the actress-prostitutes who visit with the merchants. He’s already gotten his local girlfriend pregnant, but wastes no time in lying to her so he can abandon her and her unborn child for Vlana. Vlana is an older actress; she expresses some mild concern over his cheating on his girlfriend, but ends up seducing him with few qualms anyway. And I get the sense that Leiber wants us to be sympathetic to Fafhrd and Vlana’s “love”…

Amidst all this, not even the plot is very good. There’s some intrigue and action surrounding a scheme to sell Vlana as a sex slave, which Fafhrd finds some inventive ways to interrupt. But much of the plot feels repetitive, unfocused, and never very much fun. It leans too much towards farce without quite landing its jokes. And Leiber’s imagination comes across as rather tawdry and vulgar: he seems to lust after the young women in this story every bit as much as Fafhrd does, and it’s gross.

I do not recommend this story.

“As for civilization, it stinks.”

“The Unholy Grail”
Published 1962

Poor Mouse is trying to learn white magic from a kindly wizard, but feels himself interested in black magic as well. Then tragedy strikes, in the figure of the evil Duke. The story is about Mouse’s struggles to avoid the Duke’s wrath while taking revenge against him. Complicating matters is Mouse’s love for the Duke’s daughter, who betrayed him but has also been terribly abused by her father. As Mouse takes his terrible revenge, he changes his name to Gray Mouser: no longer the prey, now he is the hunter.

First off, there’s no grail in this story. Not in the literal sense of a cup, not in the symbolic sense of a special object the characters are seeking. So the title is a cheap fake-out. A lot in these stories feels cheap (although one could argue that enhances the “pulpy” nature of the genre).

Secondly, this is a sharp pivot in tone from “The Snow Women.” Lacking humor, it is a grim, gruesome, and tragic tale. Almost sadistic, even. Murder, fathers abusing daughters, broken hearts, betrayals, black magic being used for revenge…even our “hero” mostly desires to inflict a painful death upon his enemy than to right any wrongs or save anyone. In this short story, the “hero” knows no joy except the pain of his enemy, and is rewarded for using evil magic to fight an evil person.

The characters of Mouse, the Duke, and the Duke’s daughter are far more compelling than any in “The Snow Women,” but I still can’t say I enjoy or recommend the story.

“There are laws of hate in the universe, shaping even its loves, and it is time I made them work for me.”

“Ill Met at Lankhmar”
Published 1970

Set mere months after the two previous stories, we see Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser in the great and corrupt city of Lankhmar. They meet up by accident, immediately become friends, introduce each other to their girlfriends, spend some pleasant time faffing about, and eventually decide, in a drunken contest to impress the girls, to wage grand war against the city’s all-powerful Thieves Guild. This does not go well.

As a story, this is a vast improvement upon the previous two, and mostly the sort of story I was hoping would fill the book. It’s not a masterpiece, by any stretch. But it has charm and a sense of purpose and adventure that keeps you reading until the end and enjoying much of it. It’s like a Dungeons & Dragons campaign where the barbarian and the rogue team up to cause mayhem in the big hub city, and the Dungeon Master lets them have their fun, until he suddenly pulls the rug out from under them (almost literally with the rugs, as it happens) as punishment for trying to mess with the game world’s social structures.

Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser are much more fun as a team than individually. They joke, jostle, and compliment each other. Their skills complement each other, too. They enjoy each others’ presence apparently more than they enjoy their girlfriends. (Fritz Leiber certainly likes them more than he likes any of the women in his stories.) Take for example, their meeting. They each had made separate plans to attack some thugs, and once the thugs are lying in the street they find themselves staring surprised at each other:

Fafhrd said, “Our motives for being here seem identical.”

“Seem? Surely must be!” the Mouser answered curtly, fiercely eyeing this potential new foe, who was taller by a head than the tall thief.

“You said?”

“I said, ‘Seem? Surely must be!’”

“How civilized of you!” Fafhrd commented in pleased tones.

“Civilized?” the Mouser demanded suspiciously, gripping his dirk tighter.

“To care, in the eye of action, exactly what was said,” Fafhrd explained.

So Leiber’s style is a mix. Sometimes it’s focused and fun, as in the above excerpt, or when Fafhrd explains how to spell and pronounce his name (“Just Faf-erd.”). Other times, it’s tangled and awkward, and doesn’t seem to fit the characters. For example, occasionally their internal monologues will include phrases like “what the deuce” and “clever little chap,” which sound like they are suddenly characters in an Agatha Christie mystery rather than an illiterate barbarian and a lower-class rogue in a faux-medieval fantasy city. Still, these are fairly small complaints. Not everyone can be Tolkien, or McKillip, or LeGuin. Not everyone needs to.

The ending got extremely gruesome, though, far more than I like, although I know some fantasy fans like that sort of gruesome horror mixed in with their adventures. I saw it coming and was hoping that it would be prevented, but alas. “Ill Met at Lankhmar” isn’t just the first proper adventure of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, it’s also an origin story for them as a team, and origin stories require a terrible tragedy to send the hero(es) away from home out to where they can quest and becomes famous. Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser each have two, it seems: one tragedy to send them away from their original homes, and another to send the two of them away from any other friends who might tie them down. As such, the tragedy has a purpose, but I still wish it weren’t so ugly and macabre.

Closing Remarks

There are certain patterns in Fritz Leiber’s writing which I don’t like. For one, none of the women are admirable or even much likable. I hesitate to accuse any writer of misogyny, as I think it is too easy and too often used an insult, but the best you can say about any of these female characters is that you can at least understand where they’re coming from, and some of them are fairly smart. But they’re always weak of character or are in some way unworthy, and if they’re not sexual objects they’re cold, domineering matronly types. Leiber doesn’t seem to like them very much, as he either insults them or kills them off, or has his characters dismiss them as unimportant. It’s a genuine pattern and it’s tiresome.

Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser have potential as a heroic duo, so long as future stories focus on their good and noble qualities rather than their base lusts. I have another book about them, and plan to read it eventually. But Swords and Deviltry hasn’t put it very high on my To-Read List.

What about you, fair readers? Have you read the Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories? What do you think of them?


  1. Krysta says:

    I hadn’t heard of this book or this author before, but I am highly amused that the back cover touts the “two greatest heroes in the annals of fantasy.” Well! I’m expecting quite a lot after a description of that sort! It almost seems like it would be a safer option to tone down the bombast there, lest readers be unimpressed by said heroes!

    1. David says:

      Indeed! Although to be fair, this collection was published in 1970, about thirty years after Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser appeared in print. Leiber’s stories had been massively popular and influential to over a generation of speculative fiction fans. Still, it’s a rather tall claim, I agree, and not one that holds up to my own scrutiny, haha.

  2. Luke says:

    These stories inspired me to become a writer, but reading them as an adult there is definitely stuff that hasn’t aged well.

    He did start writing them to entertain his friend, Harry Otto Fischer so there is a kind of lad wish-fulfilment of drinking and wenching. There are some interesting characters, but they do tend to be very cliched in that pulpy style.

    I think his humour and character moments are what stick with me though, so I use that in my writing. Steal what you love.

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