Swords Against Death Re-Read: Conclusion
Over the last two months Bill Ward and I have been sharing our thoughts about one of my favorite short story collections, and the first sword-and-sorcery fiction I even encountered, Fritz Leiber’s Swords Against Death.
Howard: I was afraid that it wouldn’t hold up, and I was delighted to find that my worries were wrong. At his best, Leiber stands at the pinnacle of his profession and I see now why even writers like Michael Moorcock and Harlan Ellison speak of his work with a little awe. The Lankhmar stories are uneven overall, but there are no real stinkers in this particular collection, and more than half are very strong to excellent.
My favorite, hands down, was “Bazaar of the Bizarre.” It’s essential reading for any adventure writer. I think you could read that short tale ten times and still find new things to marvel about.
In order of my preference, I rank the tales of the collection as follows.
1. Bazaar of the Bizarre
2. The Seven Black Priests
3. Thieves’ House
4. The Sunken Land
5. The Jewels in the Forest
6. The Howling Tower
7. The Bleak Shore
8. The Price of Pain-Ease
9. The Circle Curse
10. Claws from the Night
I think the biggest surprise for me was how far “Claws from the Night” dropped in my estimation. Going by memory I would have placed it as a solid mid-level entry, but apart from a few high points I thought it a minor story in the Lankhmar saga, and it certainly pales in comparison to “Bazaar.” Speaking of which, I’d thought “Bazaar” equally good with several others, and was astonished to discover just how excellent it truly was, supplanting even the one I’d thought my favorite, “The Seven Black Priests.”
The only other surprises were a new appreciation for “The Circle Curse,” which I no longer despise even if I find it something less than fully realized, and “The Price of Pain-Ease,” which I’d more or less forgotten.
Bill: I’ve read these stories much more recently than you have, so I didn’t really expect to be revising any opinions. If anything, I just like Leiber even more now, and I think I’d go so far to say that his work represents the peak of classic sword and sorcery. The first time I read all of these stories I devoured them, all seven books, more-or-less one after the other. Reading them again, and reading at most maybe two stories a week, just further highlights Leiber’s remarkable skill — these are stories to savor. Possibly the only real surprise I had was how well I remembered certain images or events in these stories, and on more than one occasion I realized that I was encountering the direct inspiration for a story of mine. I’d say I also have a much better idea now of how Leiber put all these stories together, and just how his writing chronology differs from the career chronology of the characters.
I’ve never been great at ranking things, but my preferences are roughly the same as yours. “Bazaar” has always been my favorite Fafhrd and Gray Mouser story, or at least it’s in the top three spots. The stories that were written later do seem to be our least favorites (and I really think this has to do, in part, with their juxtaposition with earlier pieces), and I’m still not certain how I feel about Leiber going back and shaping the saga with origin stories and adding the arc of the dead lovers — not because there is anything at all wrong with any of the elements, but more because of the stylistic and tonal shifts. It does make an interesting contrast with Howard’s own approach with Conan, and a big difference of course is that Leiber wrote these stories over a period that was longer than Howard’s entire lifetime. But, if anything, this just makes me curious to read the three novellas of “Swords and Deviltry” again.
Howard: When we finished our first Lord Dunsany book I was eager to move on to more by him, and I’m feeling the same with Leiber. These were just so much fun that I want to keep going. I hope we don’t suffer from Leiber fatigue as we did with Dunsany.
Bill: I want to say there’s no such thing as Leiber fatigue, but let’s find out.
Howard: I have very fond memories of “The Cloud of Hate” and “Lean Times in Lankhmar.” They were composed at about the same time as the high water mark “Bazaar of the Bizarre,” so it will be interesting to see if they, too, are Leiber at his very best.