Sean McMullen

Swords and Deviltry

Finished reading Swords and Deviltry by Fritz Leiber.

I’ve been peripherally aware of the Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories for well over a decade now, which complicates diving into them a bit. When I have the option I prefer to know as little as possible before I open a book.

Sidetrack! There are exceptions, though. Eg. Sean McMullen’s Greatwinter books do benefit from a tiny reading guide. What you need to know is this: (1) librarians rule the world (2) librarians fight duels with muskets (3) it’s science fiction. Not 100% accurate, but helps you approach it from the right angle. They’re great. Go read them.

Anyways. Swords and Deviltry. I was a bit worried that I might be coming at it with preconceptions, but things turned out well.

Anti-heroes, sort of, but not really – certainly nothing that would compare with Fraser’s Flashman. Nicely off-kilter stereotypes: a barbarian who is enamoured with civilization. A clever little thief who’s a formidable swordsman and has more than his share of blind spots. Moral ambiguity that just IS, rather than going “OH LOOK! MORAL AMBIGUITY!” and wallowing in it. While it very much riffs off on earlier pulp and fantasy stories, it is clearly its own non-generic thing. I like the way it is willing to be at turns silly, poetic, pulpy, and tragic.

…but what’s best, the length was just right. It’s technically a short story collection, but reads more like a novella. I’m more and more convinced that what SF needs is resurgence of novellas: the form is long enough to develop a theme more fully than a short story, but still short enough to force a sharper focus. With very few exceptions I would rather a collection of half dozen novellas than a 1000-pager written as single brick.

Two thumbs up. Required reading, marvelous stuff. If you’ve like me managed to skip Leiber, do yourself a favor and dig in.

Next up:

Swords Against Death … by Fritz Leiber, who else? ;)