For a period of four decades, 1940s to the ‘80s, Fritz Leiber’s pair, Farfhrd and the Gray Mouser, were two of sword and sorcery’s most beloved creations. Their adventures spanning more than 30 short stories, novelettes, novellas, and even a novel, Orion decided to publish the collection in two volumes for the ongoing Fantasy Masterworks series, The First and Second Book of Lankhmar.
Fun and entertainment forever at the forefront, serious literature it is not. Fafhrd a sentimental,Viking-esque warrior fighting far from home and the Gray Mouser a small but wily thief with more than one trick up his sleeve, the duo seem to continually find themselves in a scrape—the law, magicians, witches, and otherwise. Rogues through and through, they would list thievery, vendettas, and mercenary work on their resumes if they ever tried to find jobs that didn’t place them in a new adventure every week. And the city where they live, Lankhmar, doesn’t have any shortage of opportunities. The foggy, scummy, magical, lantern lit, and decadent streets possessing a fun adventure around every corner, it doesn’t seem they’ll be switching professions anytime soon.
Beyond the occasional bout of violence and bawdy scene, the underlying current to the Farfhrd and the Gray Mouser stories is romantic adventure—picaresque at most times. The tone kept extremely light, readers know the duo will never be killed or separated despite the dire threats they face, and will return in the next episode. Throughout the stories Leiber maintains the voice of a storyteller, addressing the reader as much as describing events at hand. Though at times wordy, he generally keeps his tongue firmly in cheek, giving the stories an air that things should not be taken too seriously. Falling short of the sublime wordplay of Jack Vance, readers should expect humor of the situational variety—a comedy of dramas, or vice versa, appearing as a result.
Getting down to whether the stories are worth investing in, it’s best to draw a line between who will enjoy these stories and who will not. And it’s a clear line, nothing gray about it. If you enjoy in-humor (i.e. buddy-buddy jokes between characters referring to aspects outside the drama at hand, and most often sex or alcohol), plain and simple sword and sorcery (i.e. comic book style action), an original fantasy setting, and episodic adventures featuring the same tried and true pair, then the Lankhmar books may be for you. If, however, you prefer something with a bit more serious tone, female characters that are not sexualized at every turn (if I had a nickel for every time Leiber writes “nipples”…), characters beyond archetypal restraints, and storylines not beaten to death, then avoid this at all costs. I have not delved too deeply into reviews of Lankhmar, but I’m guessing it receives either gushing praise (“…fun, action/adventure stories filled with magic and humor…”) or vehemence (“…S&S that has never graduated from sixth grade; like Disney entering the B-fantasy market…”). Depending on perspective or expectation, both are true.
Yes, Lankhmar is not for everyone. Farfhrd and the Gray Mouser are an original duo whose style of picaresque adventure may find you singing their praises along with many others. But for those who dislike juvenile fiction that contains action and sex strictly for entertainment purposes, your stomach may be turned. Both sides will agree that there is nothing intelligent about the collection save the imagination Leiber invested in the setting and fantasy elements. Suffice to say, Lankhmar is an entirely different beast than The Big Time. The former simple entertainment, the latter literary speculative fiction, Leiber proves himself versatile in the least. I've heard it said that Roger Zelazny can be quoted as: "Whenever I needed something, like a swimming pool, I would just write another Amber book." The same appears to be true of Leiber's duo. S&S lite, they paid the bills when work with more ambition was his true interest.