Swords Against Death Re-Read: “The Circle Curse”

lankhmar 3In the coming weeks Bill 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 first tale in the volume. “The Circle Curse” is really more of a prologue than a proper story.

Howard: When I first read “The Circle Curse” I was 14 or 15 years old and it left me wanting. So wanting that I probably would have stopped reading the book if the story hadn’t been so short. I had opened Swords Against Death expecting to be transported into adventure, and what I got in “The Circle Curse” was more the summary of several adventures, a whole lot of wandering, and a little moping. I loved the rest of the book and re-read it multiple times, but I have never, ever revisited this first story until now.

If you’re not already familiar with Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser this is a cold start. It doesn’t really tell a proper story, it just fills in the gaps between what happened between “Ill Met in Lankhmar” and the collection of tales here. And that’s perfectly fine, I suppose, if you’re reading them in sequence. Maybe readers need something to tell them what happened between adventures. I would have preferred a few more tales to tell me rather than this summary, but even creative geniuses don’t always give you what you want.

That said, I ended up liking the story better than I remembered. I certainly think it’s a more entertaining read if you’re already familiar with the characters.

lankhmar 9Bill: The first time I read “The Circle Curse” it served its purpose as a bridging story between “Ill Met in Lankhmar” and the stories in Swords Against Death, and it didn’t really stick out one way or the other in my mind. However, that’s twice now that I can think of where the extra stories Leiber wrought for the “novelization” of the F&GM stories ran the risk of alienating potential readers. The two novella length origin story pieces from the previous book weren’t at all what I was looking for when I picked up the F&GM stories for the first time, and I’ve heard the same from at least one other online reviewer. If I hadn’t already read better, classic F&GM stories in other anthologies, I may have not realized what was around the corner.

I wonder what the genesis was of the need to assemble these pieces with connecting or prequel material was — if it was all Leiber, or if it was his editor?

That said, I really like “The Circle Curse” for what it is. I suspect if the condensed adventures mentioned in the story were part of a italicized block of text in a preface, maybe attributed to “The Nehwonian Chronicles,” it wouldn’t even bear much notice. As it is it and the two preface stories from the previous book stand out as different from the classic F&GM story, and it’s no wonder they give people pause.

lankhmar 2One thing I think is interesting about the story is it actually assigns a consequence to F&GM’s previous adventure. The loss of their lovers isn’t something they just shrug off between adventures — they’re so distraught they vow never to return to Lankhmar! Some readers know, of course, that they have many more adventures set in this city, and of course it turns out that it is their curse to circle back to their starting point, but only after many foreign adventures have dulled some of their pain.

But it isn’t just their pain that is necessary for Leiber to convey, but their career itself. Most everything in the previous book is fresh back story. There aren’t many off-stage adventures implied with F&GM. But we know the guys in the classic F&GM canon have a long history together; they’re seasoned. “The Circle Curse” gives us that seasoning, taking the ill met pair and turning them into the two [who] sought adventure.

As for the story itself I really enjoyed some of the throwaway ideas for the duo’s adventures. They were pure Leiber, such as a realm grown so decadent and “far grown into the future” that all the men were bald! The various jobs the two hold while adventuring are as important to their character as the jobs they don’t, and the whole piece really works beautifully to bridge the earlier material with the classic ones. It even serves to introduce Sheelba and Ninguable.

Howard: Interestingly enough, Robin Wayne Bailey wrote a novel set during Fafrhd and the Gray Mouser’s wanderings, and there was at least one other story planned. Unlike so many other pastiche books, Leiber was actually involved in discussing the story and officially handed off the baton. I’ve yet to look into the book, though (Swords Against the Shadowland).

Bill: I’m curious about it too, but have not read it or even heard much about it.

Howard: Next week we start with the good stuff. “The Jewels in the Forest,” aka “Two Sought Adventure” was first published in 1939 My recollection is that it’s one of the simpler Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories, which makes sense, seeing as how it appears to be one of the earliest. See you here!

7 Comments on “Swords Against Death Re-Read: “The Circle Curse”

  1. I don’t think I’ve read any of the F&GM stories for at least a decade, probably longer. And I haven’t read many of them, maybe half at the most. So my take on “The Circle Curse” is going to be a little different yours. When I read this story, the thing that stuck out in my mind wasn’t so much what F&GM did while they were wandering, but the places they wandered. Leiber gave enough hints of adventurous and exotic places that I wanted to immediately jump in and read more of the stories. (For once, self-control won out and I managed to hold off. If I get too far ahead, they will start running together in my mind by the time you get to some of them in this series of posts.)

    Anyway, I came away from this tale with a strong sense of place, not so much of Lankhmar, but of Nehwon.

    • Hey Keith — I think that’s a much better way to see the story than the way I looked at it. “Circle Curse” does, indeed, give the reader a sense of some of Newhon’s wonders.

  2. A good point, Keith. I think in those early stories it’s implied that F&GM have traveled the world and seen some wild adventures together (and this is something I’ll be alert to in the reread), and here we get a rough thumbnail of those events.

    It does make me even more curious about the authorized pastiche Howard mentioned.

  3. I read those stories a few month ago, never having read any Leiber before. I thought the origin stories were quite bad, and The Circle Curse just outright terrible. Fortunately, it did get a lot better after that.

  4. Pingback: Black Gate » Blog Archive » Join Howard Andrew Jones and Bill Ward in a Swords Against Death Re-Read

  5. I got “Swords and Deviltry”, “Swords Against Death”, and “Swords in the Mist” on my Kobo after a lot of people recommended the series on one of the Pulp lists I read. The consensus was that you could read them in any order, so I chose to read them in the book form. Big mistake. I found most of “Swords and Deviltry” to be slow and boring. It was probably great backstory for fans of the series when it was published, but very off-putting for me. I just finished “Circle Curse” this morning and am just getting into “Two Sought Adventure” which is finally living up to expectations.

    I think that “Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser” should be read as a non-sequential bunch of stories told around a campfire, (same with Conan) rather than a chronological biography of some kind.

    • Hoo-boy. I wish people still weren’t claiming that you could read them in any order, or that you should read in chronological order. I shout from the rooftop as loudly as I can which ones are the best and which ones to skip, but it’s hard to hear me.

      Hope you found some you enjoyed!

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