Swords Against Death Re-Read: Conclusion

lankhmar 3Over 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.

lankhmar 2Howard: 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

Jonquil & Fritz Leiber.

Jonquil & Fritz Leiber.

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.

lankhmar 7I’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.

lankhmar 9Howard: 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.

7 Comments on “Swords Against Death Re-Read: Conclusion

  1. I believe Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories are unequaled in the genre of sword and sorcery, although it’s not a competition. Howard, Vance and Moorcock (and some others) brought their own brilliance to the field. But Leiber’s wit, imagination, style, mystery, humor, etc. have been matched, in my opinion, by no one, before or since. Looking forward to what’s next!

  2. And, the mention of fatigue of a writer brings up another point. As much as I love Howard, Vance and Moorcock, I usually don’t read more than one book (like The Dying Earth or Stormbringer) or a few stories before wanting to move to something else. But because of the variety in Leiber’s writing and the evolution of his style and the characters, I could read all of the books straight through with great enjoyment. I also believe humor is a huge element in stories being continually appealing and readable. That’s one reason I enjoy Conan more than Kull or Solomon Kane—the humor that occasionally appears in the Conan stories is a huge saving grace. Most great stories and even epics have humor in them. Humor seems to hint at some essential aspect of the human drama.

    • I can read a lot of Robert E. Howard in a row, but usually not the SAME kind of REH story. For instance, the Kane stories (obviously from earlier in his career) have more of a sameness to them than others, and some aren’t as polished, so that I end up liking Kane in concept more than all the Kane stories. Same for Kull. The Conan stories have more hits than misses, but I’m not sure I’d like even to read that entire collection back-to-back.

      On the other hand, given the entire run of Conan tales versus the entire run of Lankhmar stories, there are more hits than misses with Conan, whereas with Lankhmar it seems about 50/50. Probably because I never much liked the tonal shift between Leiber’s earlier/middle tales to his later ones. (Although I have to add that I remember “Adept’s Gambit,” another early one, being disappointing. I guess I’ll rediscover the truth soon.)

  3. I think that’s absolutely true — even something intended as very tonally grim or bleak benefits from a pinch of humor (for such a thing it may be sardonic or cynical, rather than bawdy or joyous, but it still reflects our human propensity to see the humor in everything, at least some of the time). Humor is a facet of life that I think we feel the absence of when it isn’t present in fiction.

    Leiber’s humor (which goes well beyond a mere pinch!) is so deftly applied that his stories can be laugh-out-loud funny and never feel like a farce, satire, or goof. And they still deliver all the other elements of speculative adventure fiction by the bucketful. My appreciation of him grows with each story I reread.

  4. Yeah, Bill. That’s one of the reasons the Solomon Kane movie wasn’t that enjoyable and I definitely would not watch it again, even though it was decently done (accept that terrible CGI demon at the end). The movie (like the stories) is unrelentingly grim.

    I re-read Leiber’s Lankhmar stories about once every three years. I always enjoy them, and luckily, there are enough stories that I still forget wonderful details. Or, maybe I’m just getting old.

  5. I’ve enjoyed this series even though I haven’t always kept up or commented. Sometimes I’ve been a week or two behind, but I’ve read all the stories. I’m looking forward to what you read next.

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