By Fritz Leiber
Swords Against Death is the second volume of the adventures of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. There are ten tales of marvels, mourning, comedy, and derring-do. Fafhrd is a tall Northern barbarian, serious and introspective, his comrade in arms, the Gray Mouser is a small, lighting quick fellow who specializes in theft and dabbles in sorcery.
Leiber wanted to create sword and sorcery heroes on a human scale. Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser have any number of fantastic adventures, but they always keep an ironic distance from “heroism”, avoiding any hint of self-importance. Sometimes they even mourn when they kill an enemy. These guys are Conan with empathy, Elric with a sense of humor.
Leiber introduces the twain’s sorcerous mentors: Sheelba of the Eyeless Face and Ningauble of the Seven Eyes. While trying to maintain symmetry (two heroes, two wizards), really Ningauble is the prize. Ning matches the pair in outlandishness, whimsicality, and erratic behavior. He’s Gandalf on cough syrup.
The stories here are good, but the final two are the crown jewels: “The Price of Pain-Ease” and “Bazaar of the Bizarre”. Images from those weird and wonderful tales still flash in my mind’s eye, some decades after first reading them. “Pain-Ease” involves the theft of a vacation cottage, a journey to confront old sorrows, and a duel with Death. It is a look into the subconscious of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, and sets a pattern for their peculiar choices of female companionship. “Bazaar of the Bizarre” tells of a heroic battle against an alien invasion of corporate strip malls (for lack of a better expression). It’s a good story to keep in mind when you’re shopping, though Leiber does make the goods on sale awfully tempting.
Swords Against Death is part of one of the greatest sword and sorcery series of all time. Read it and you’ll see it’s greatness first-hand!