Ill Met in Lankhmar by Fritz Leiber
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Whatever sword and sorcery book you happen to be reading at the moment - throw it across the room, sneer at the author's petty attempts at greatness, and go pick up one of Fritz Leiber's Lankhmar books. It doesn't necessarily have to be the edition I'm reviewing here. But if you have one ounce of love for sword and sorcery in your veins, you must read Leiber's work. And before you shout out "I don't need your stupid wizards and bare-chested barbarians!" read on!
I have just finished the White Wolf edition of Ill Met in Lankhmar, which collects Leiber's original Lankhmar volumes 1 and 2, Swords and Deviltry and Swords Against Death.
Rather than giving a blow-by-blow or even focusing on the story arc of these connected short stories and novellas, I'd like to point out the two most compelling reasons for snatching up a copy of this book: character and language.
Fafhrd and Gray Mouser are some of the most compelling characters in all of sword and sorcery literature. They have complex motivations and reactions to varied circumstances. They are, at turns, brilliant and stupid, competent and bungling, all tempered by a good bit of luck. Among their many talents, they are rogue thieves, amateur wizard (Gray Mouser) and bard (Fafhrd), and, most importantly, accomplished swordsmen. Circumstances dictate their initial meeting, but mutual respect, a sort of chivalry, a shared sense of dark humor, mutual loss, and a desire for revenge cause them to become inseparable. Even after their past literally stops haunting them, they remain compatriots and fellow-adventurers. It's difficult to relate the subtleties of their interaction, their wit, and their banter. You simply must read it for yourself.
The prose is, at turns, playful and a touch archaic, though never as whimsical as Wodehouse nor as purple as DeCamp’s “translations” of Conan. The tone strikes just the right balance between funny and serious, not straying too far toward silliness or darkness, though both elements can be found threaded throughout these tales. On a side note, Leiber sticks with earlier notions of sorcery, established by Howard and others, that magic is not something you really want to dabble in unless you absolutely have to. Messing about with the natural order of things carries heavy consequences. Though magic can help your cause, there is a price to be paid for forcefully upsetting the balance of the universe.
The setting of the city of Lankhmar seems overdone only because so many more recent works of sword and sorcery are derivative. It's hard to seem original when everyone who's followed has copied your styles, customs, and tropes. So put your D&D books away for a little while, read this, then come back and see what all Arneson and Gygax incorporated from Lankhmar. The early AD&D works are saturated with the stuff.
I could go on about Leiber's influence on roleplaying, but one need know nothing about roleplaying games to enjoy the wonderful characters that are Fafhrd and Gray Mouser. One need not even *like* the sword and sorcery genre to appreciate Leiber's beautiful, but not overwrought prose. One need not be a grammar snob to enjoy the yarns Leiber has spun in these stories. In essence, Ill Met in Lankhmar is a book's book, approachable on many levels by readers of widely varying interests and backgrounds.
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