Swords Against Death Re-Read: “The Bleak Shore”

lankhmar 3Bill Ward and I  are re-reading a book from Fritz Leiber’s famous Lankhmar series, Swords Against Death. We hope you’ll pick up a copy and join us. This week we tackled the fourth tale in the volume, “The Bleak Shore.”

lankhmar 1Howard: “The Bleak Shore” felt a little like a story written on deadline. That’s not to say that there aren’t any masterful moments. In lesser hands the emergence of the things from the eggs would have seemed a lot less tense and perhaps even ridiculous, whereas Leiber pulled off horror. Then there are wondrous visual descriptions of the sea travel and of the behavior of the characters under the curse.

Bill: I can’t disagree. I think the climax may have been a bit hastily written as well. One interesting thing about the story is the switch to the last surviving Mingol crewman for the narration of the “geased” voyage, and then a switch back to our heroes in media res on the Bleak Shore far from civilization. A great way to both economize and build tension, and also to create that great sort of ‘doomed expedition’ weird tale vibe.

lankhmar 6Howard: A good point. I thought Ourph’s narration of the ill-fated sea voyage really evocative — my only problem with it was that I signed on for the adventures of Fafhrd and Mouser, not the sea voyage of Ourph the Mingol. But that’s a minor quibble. More troubling — it wasn’t entirely clear to me what the Mouser had done at the very end. Is that the sorcerer he’s killed, and the guy they saw in the tavern was a simulacrum? Or is this some kind of entity linked to the sorcerer? And then I have to say I was disappointed that I saw so little of the banter and camaraderie that I’d enjoyed so much in the last two stories. During most of this one Fafhrd and the Mouser are cursed and driven. And while Leiber did a great job showing us what that was like, I missed them as usual.

Perhaps I should be pleased that he managed variety so that a Fafhrd and Mouser tale isn’t just the same thing every time… but there really aren’t THAT many of these written at the height of his powers, so I still felt a little let down.

Bill: There is one line about the wizard “sending the spirit of himself out into the world,” or something. My guess is that the embryonic wizard grows in the egg until some adventurers arrive to meet their death (and provide him with energy?), then he hatches and goes out into the world to send more adventurers back to the bleak shore, where the process would repeat.

lankhmar 9Howard: Yeah, you may be right. That feels a lot weaker than what we saw last week, as though it were made up on the fly. I don’t think this was a bad one (certainly I’ve re-read it more than once, which is more than I can say for the tales in Swords and Ice Magic). It entertained me, and there were moments of excellence, but it’s certainly not one that will make my best-of list.

Bill: Agreed. There’s not a whole lot to add to this one. It was a short, fun story with some great invention and the always wonderful writing of Leiber, but not a standout.

Howard: That’s it, then. Next week we’ll move onto one I remember being a lot stronger, “The Howling Tower.”

6 Comments on “Swords Against Death Re-Read: “The Bleak Shore”

  1. It seems I’ve read more of these yarns in the past than I initially thought. I haven’t managed to keep up like I intended – I did read the Circle Curse but didn’t have much of anything to add to the conversation, you guys covered my thoughts spot on – but I remember reading this one a few years back. I’m fairly sure it was the first Leiber story I read.
    I recall thinking it was pretty cool, especially, the tense passages when they’re under the curse and the creatures they square off with. I probably like the cursed moments because the characters were entirely new to me and didn’t even know what I was missing. I need to go back and catch up with the other stories I missed, they sound very cool.
    Though, I have read the Howling Tower already, now that I go back and look, and remember liking it a great deal.

  2. Hey Jason,

    Oh, I think you’re perfectly justified in liking the cursed section. Leiber does a great job bringing it all to life. I loved that the Mouser can even warn the Mingols, as he’s leaving, that they should get out if they can because he and Fafhrd are doomed. I just had been looking forward to more amusing banter and antics after the last two episodes, and we got almost none of it this time around because the central characters were essentially removed from the narrative. It was unsatisfying in that way, like Doyle’s “A Study of Scarlet” where Holmes and Watson are missing from a good half (or more) of the narrative. In this case, F and the Mouser are THERE, they just aren’t themselves.

  3. I find myself in agreement with both of you on this one. It’s got good bits but it wasn’t as enjoyable as the others in the collection so far. I liked the ominous beginning and the Mingol’s tale, but found the ending rushed and unclear.

    Howard, I wanted more F/GM banter too, but I, at least intellectually, like Leiber’s decision change things up and write in a very different way than in the previous, more straight-up, adventures. I found the narrative to read like something by CAS or Dunsany.

  4. I’ll not repeat what some the rest of you have said about the ending or the structure of the story beyond I’m in agreement with you.

    Leiber’s prose in this one was really strong in places. The opening description of the tavern really defined the setting. I almost felt like I was there. Almost, because if the wind was blowing dust around like Leiber said it was, the tavern would have a lot more dust in the air. Trust me, I know. That’s a frequent condition where I live.

    The other place where the prose really stood out to me was in the description of the monster when it hatched from the egg. Using a minimum number of words, Leiber paints a detailed picture of the monster. A lesser writer would have used twice as many words to give half as good a description.

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  6. I… probably won’t be rereading this one anytime soon. Most of it was basically setup for a single fight-scene, which was over a little too quickly in my estimation. Parts of the setup were enthralling, but I really feel this would’ve worked better as the “last” F&GM story, a legend of a legend about their last adventure, with their survival left in eternal question.

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