the Little Red Reviewer

Swords & Deviltry, by Fritz Leiber

Posted on: November 20, 2012

Swords and Deviltry (Fafhrd & the Grey Mouser, book 1), by Fritz Leiber

published in 1970

where I got it: purchased used

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On the very long (and growing longer) list of books and authors who were before my time and influenced entire genres is Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and The Grey Mouser series.  Born in 1910 in Chicago, Leiber spent his youth following in his actor parents footsteps. He later studied philosophy, religion, copy-editing, chess, and fencing.  He started publishing short stories in science fiction and fantasy magazines in the late 1930s, and would continue to publish until into the 1980s. His writings are highly influenced by spending his youth around Shakespearian actors, his formal studies, his love for Lovecraftian literature, and a passion for all things unusual.  Having just finished my first Leiber, two things have obvious to me: his potential for weird, and his influence on the sword and sorcery / dark fantasy genre.

The Fafhrd and The Grey Mouser series was originally a large smattering of short stories published in multiple magazines, which follow the two titular rogues on countless adventures. Later, Leiber figured out the chronology and wrote some additional stories to help bind everything together. Starting in 1970 and going until the late 80’s, the short stories were published into larger volumes, and the first of those volumes is Swords and Deviltry.

Swords and Deviltry is split up in three parts – the first part,  The Snow Women, introduces Fafhrd, the second part, The Unholy Grail, introduces The Grey Mouser, and in the third part, Ill Met in Lankhmar, the two meet for the first time and the bonds of friendship are secured through tragic events.


When we first meet Fafhrd, he’s living with his family in snowy lands of Nehwon. The Snow Clan is very matriarchal, and the women find multiple ways, including frost magic, to frighten the men into doing what the women want.  It’s expected that Fafhrd will marry Mara, who has become pregnant by him (and I did expect him to), but instead he starts a relationship with Vlana,  a courtesan actress, even though she has plans of her own.  Fafhrd defies his tribe and runs away with Vlana.  Everyone believes he ran away with her for the sex (and there is plenty of that), but the truth is, he wants to be with her so she can teach him about civilization.  Did I feel bad about his jilted baby-mamma? After weighing all the pieces of the situation, I only felt a little bad for her.

When we meet The Grey Mouser, or simply Mouse, as he’s known, he’s a youthful wizard’s apprentice, studying besides the lovely Ivrian, the daughter of the Duke.  Through Ivrian’s naivety, the Duke learns what is happening and sets out to murder the wizard and Mouse.  The wizard had taught Mouse only white magic, but he describes his student as grey. When Ivrian’s accidental betrayal becomes too much to bear, Mouse turns his back on white magic and uses the darkest of magic to aid in his escape.

In the final section, both The Grey Mouser and Fafhrd, and their ladies, are living in the metropolis of Lankhmar.  The two rogues meet when they both go after the same stolen prize. Lankhmar is a city run by guilds, and like any good sword and sorcery city, it has a healthy thieves guild, and a healthier beggars guild. The major rules of the Thieves Guild are “no girls allowed”, and “no thievery outside the guild” (Gods help you if you’re a female thief!). Unable to break the first rule, the Mouser and Fafhrd are happy to break that second rule.  They attack the same mark at the same time,  much banter and drinking ensues, loot is one, lady friends are impressed and everyone is quite happy with themselves. Except that now the Thieves guild can identify them. Time for more banter, more alcohol, and to take on the Thieves Guild, right through their front door!

Swords and Deviltry was deliciously, ridiculously, wonderfully,  fun. It’s got all the adventure and banter and narrow escapes and rickety staircases and doomed romances and adventure and drunken banter and everything I love about adventure fantasy.  If published today, this would be called dark fantasy.

Plenty of you just read in this review sounds tropey, doesn’t it?

Here’s the thing though – these weren’t tropes when these stories were written.  Authors like Leiber were still reacting to the ultimate sword and sorcery trope – Conan, and ripping that trope to shreds, having philosophical barbarians, drunken rogues, intelligent banter, characters who were so corrupt they weren’t even anti-heroes. . .  once upon a time, what you call dark fantasy was the newest thing on the block, and Fritz Leiber was rocking that show.

It still sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Ever play D&D?  Gary Gygax cites this series as a huge influence on him. Ever read Scott Lynch’s Lies of Locke Lamora, or Paul S. Kemp’s The Hammer and the Blade? Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books?  If I start playing fast and loose with the concept of a gritty and dangerous yet decadent city, the list grows even more.   Do your self a favor, pick up some Leiber, and learn where everything you love about dark fantasy was born.

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9 Responses to "Swords & Deviltry, by Fritz Leiber"

I haven’t heard of him, but will keep an eye out. There’s a used bookstore near me that has a pretty decent fantasy collection. and I love what he studied: philosophy, religion, copy-editing, chess, and fencing–he would be handy to have around.

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I read this and the others many, many years ago and have re-read them numerous times. I never thought of them as “dark” anything, just S&S and a ton of fun. But then I often ignore the labels that attempt to pigeon hole everything. You are right here; these are a huge amount of fun. I encourage everyone to read all of the Fafhrd and Grey Mouser stories.

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I really like the sound of this – not in the library though so I’ll have to keep my eye out – however, there was a copy of The Hammer and the Blade – do you recommend????

Lynn :D

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I haven’t read The Hammer and The Blade yet, but I hear good things about it. if it’s at the library, I say grab it.

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Leiber is one of the best! And it isn’t just his Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser stuff, he’s done some very excellent sci-fi novels and the like. Good stuff.

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Welcome to Nehwon and the fantastic writings of the fantasy author Fritz Leiber. In his world you will meet what are, in his own description, the two greatest swordsmen in this or any universe, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. Both endowed with the ability to attract the most fantastic adventures. This series of stories has but one common theme which is to see how smart, strong, agile, magical, and roguish our two intrepid heroes can be. Throughout the six book series we are treated to some of the most imaginative fantasy writing I have come across. Fast paced, but sensitive to telling a good story, Mr. Leiber has found a knack for telling just enough to stand your hair on end but not so much as to become boring with all of the finite detail of some of his compatriots.

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There are seven books (people forget The Knight and Knaves of Swords, it’s “Gray” Mouser, Leiber himself coined the term “Sword and Sorcery”, and it’s a shame he’s relatively unknown nowadays. I guess I should take some comfort in the fact that people are rediscovering him, even if in dribs and drabs. You’re right, though, most of the later crap that passes for “Dark Fantasy” wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for Leiber laying the groundwork.

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I do try to read older stuff from time to time. After all, just like you said – the new stuff wouldn’t exist in the form it does if it wasn’t for authors like Leiber.

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