The War With The Mein

Acacia coverIt’s a small part of a big book, but I want to start by saying that I like how David Anthony Durham handles his map. We know what The Tough Guide to Fantasyland has to say about maps: that to see one at the front of a book is to know that you must not expect to be let off from visiting every damn place shown on it. At first glance, Durham does not disappoint. Indeed, he opens with a tour, in which an unnamed, pale-skinned assassin rides out from a stronghold in the North, down across the frozen plains of the Mein plateau, down through the fertile woodlands of the Methalian Rim; he then passes through the port of Alecia and boards a boat for the island of Acacia, seat of the empire that dominates the Known World, and home of his target, Leodan Akaran, the king. At each stage the culture and climate of the region through which the assassin is passing are described, along with the darkening colouration of its inhabitants. It’s a smooth introduction to a slice of the world, and it shapes our understanding of the rest of Book One of The War With The Mein (which is itself Volume One of Acacia), also known as “The King’s Idyll”. The next two hundred and fifty or so pages focus primarily on the seat of empire, and there introduce the main cast, each in their own chapter: Leodan himself, aging widower king; his chancellor, and “first ear for any secret” (32), Thaddeus Clegg; his four children (in descending order of age), noble Aliver, brittle Corinn, precocious Mena, and innocent Dariel; a talented Acacian general, Leeka Alain, stationed in the assassin’s homeland; and Rialus Neptos, scheming governer of the fortress where Alain’s army is barracked. A few players remain to be introduced — notably Hanish Mein, brother of that assassin, leader of his “tribal, warlike, bickering” people, and architect of a multi-pronged invasion that stuns the Acacian empire with its speed, ferocity and thoroughness — but you get the idea. This is a story of princes and princesses, soldiers and battles, empires and destinies. With what can only be called, despite its chunkiness, admirable economy, The War With The Mein covers years and a continent. It asks us to learn (and think about) a lot, and by the end of it, we have travelled to each compass point of The Known World. It is, oh, what’s that word? Epic.

But, much as I love a story with scope, such a summary gives only a partial sense of what it is like to read The War With The Mein. There is an iceberg effect here. A Known World — and this is what I like about his map — implies an Unknown World, after all, and what I have so far failed to convey is that the contract made by the story is that it will, when all is said and done, tell a true societal epic, by which I mean an epic that takes at least as much account of large-scale socioeconomic changes as it does of the martial and heroic adventures of a chosen few. Durham’s chosen style is appropriate to the task: dignified, measured, explicative (occasionally ponderous), with an echo of Guy Gavriel Kay, though Durham is less lyric, and more clinical in his dissections of his characters for our edification. When you’ve finished reading this paragraph, for instance, you will know pretty much all you need to know about Leodan Akaran:

Leodan Akaran was a man at war with himself. He carried on silent conflicts inside his head, struggles that raged one day into the next without resolution. He knew it was a weakness in him, the fault of having a dreamer’s nature, a bit of the poet in him, a scholar, a humanist: hardly traits fit for a king. He enveloped his family in the luxurious culture of Acacia, even as he hid from them the abhorrent trade that funded it. He planned for his children never to experience violence firsthand, even though this privilege was bought with a blade at others’ necks. He hated that countless numbers throughout his lands were chained to a drug that guaranteed their labor and submission, and yet he indulged in the same vice himself. He loved his children with a breathless passion that sometimes woke them in terror from dreams of some misfortune befalling them. But he knew that agents working in his name ripped other parents’ children from their arms, never to be seen again. It was monstrous, and in many ways he felt it was his fault. (114)

Many chapters begin with this sort of thing. These are characters who are not allowed to keep very many secrets from their readers; the nuances of their emotional progressions are laid out in careful detail, meaning that if there is sometimes suspense about what exactly they are going to do, the cumulative effect is that we almost always know with piercing clarity why they act. More, this is how Durham gets in a lot of his background. Every sentence in the above paragraph is about Leodan, but most of them are telling you something about how he feels about the world – how he has been shaped by it; in The War With The Mein this is far more common than the reverse – and thus telling you something about the world. There is also a greater-than-average amount of diegesis, or put another way, a relative lack of direct speech (and hence, banter: none of your Scott Lynch snap here) and direct action (there’s a bit more of this, particularly late on, but, for example, the first major battle of the war takes place off-screen), to the point that I don’t think it would be entirely unfair to suggest that The War With The Mein is interested in its characters and their inner lives less for their own sakes, and more for the light those lives can shed on their roles as historical agents. These are, the novel appears to say — thanks to the aesthetic choices that shape it, as much as in any explicit sense — the people by whose actions this world will be turned: now watch it turn.

There is certainly a lot to be turned. “This world is corrupt from top to bottom,” as Thaddeus at one point puts it to Aliver. Acacia, home of our heroes, is a slaving empire — it is said as bluntly in the novel — supported by a trade that sees thousands of children shipped into bondage each year, in exchange for a supply of a drug, Mist, that is fearsomely addictive, and keeps the populace numb and domesticated, such that they don’t object next time the Quota comes around. More details become clear as the novel unfolds, of course, but this much is laid out for the reader very early on and returned to very often. As Leodan says, however, for the royal children this truth is initially hidden. The King’s Idyll is ignorance. It is symptomatic of a wider cultural malaise, and one of the reasons Hanish Mein hates the empire. “We Meins live with the past,” he tells his people. “It is the Akarans who rewrite the past to suit them” (173). Sure enough, the legends we learn in the first few chapters of the book about the founders of Acacia and the ancestors of the Akarans turn out to only be true from a certain point of view. But Acacian blinkers go beyond history — and here we come back to the map. It is Mena Akaran who asks the question that frames the rest of the book:

“Why is Acacia always at the centre of maps?” she asked. [Like the one at the front of this novel, she cannot say.] “If the world curves and has no end — as you taught us, Jason — how is one place the centre and not another?”

Corinn found the question silly. […] “It just is the center, Mena. Everyone knows that.”

“Succinctly put,” Jason said, “but Mena does make a point. All peoples think of themselves first. First, central, and foremost, yes? I should show you a map from Talay sometime. They draw the world quite differently.” (24)

The story of Books Two and Three of The War With The Mein (“Exiles” and “Living Myth”) is largely the story of how the royal children come to terms with having their perspective shattered: how they come to terms with knowledge of their inherited guilt, and of the true shape of the world. Though we never leave the map’s boundaries, “The Known World” is, as we may have suspected, very far from being the Whole World. The slave trade that supports Acacia is managed by a commercial organization, the League of Vessels, on behalf of a people, the Lothan Aklun, who appear on no Acacian map. Hanish Mein’s invasion is only a success because he negotiates new deals with these powers. We will turn to them, presumably, in the second and third volumes of the trilogy (volume two, out later this year, is called The Other Lands, though there are reasons internal to volume one to understand that some form of exploration is inevitable), but in the meantime we begin to appreciate that the Known World is not nearly top dog. And every time we check a location, the map at the front of The War With The Mein serves as a reminder of how incomplete the story told so far really is.

Absent that reminder, it would be easy to get lost in the sweep of Durham’s story, because Durham really is good at sweep. So: the royal children are spirited out of the capital as the inevitability of Mein victory becomes apparent, dispersed to various corners of the empire to be raised in secrecy. Three of them make it. The fourth, Corinn, is recaptured and held in a gilded cage by Hanish Mein. Of the others, Mena washes up on an island in the East, hailed as a living incarnation of the local goddess of wrath; Dariel joins the pirates of the West, harrying the League of Vessels and others who ply the same waters; and Aliver is sent to one of the tribes of Talay, in the South, where he becomes a warrior, and a leader. There are adventures and excitements in all four strands of the story, for the most part executed with some flair. In another review I would pay more attention to the vigour that Mena and Aliver, in particular, bring to their fighting by fusing their arthritic Acacian “forms” — literally rehearsals of famous conflicts — with the techniques of other cultures. “Unlike the forms”, we are told, the new style of warfare that Aliver must learn “allowed no actions not entirely necessary” (284). In that other review I might suggest that part of Durham’s project with Acacia is to infuse the forms of epic fantasy with a similar energy. In this review, however, I will point out that it is another way in which Durham is economical: we only get the full Mary Gentle blood-and-guts fury late in the book, when it has most impact, in part because the characters are not capable of giving physical voice to their anger until then. Sometimes, certainly, economy works against the book, such as when Mena goes from swordfighting neophyte to winner of the local tournament in one chapter (chapter forty-seven, thirteen and a half pages), but at other times it is incredibly refreshing. A raid by Dariel on one of the League’s mighty trading platforms, for example, is similarly conceived and executed within a single chapter, and all the better for it, while Aliver’s inevitable quest sees him set out in one chapter and arrive in the next. This isn’t just a matter of pacing; the sense is that there is a lot of story here that could be told, a lot of canvas to be covered, and that (as with the map) Durham is being very selective about what he’s showing us. So what we do get carries weight.

And so you have to think about what it adds up to. Hannah Strom-Martin is right, I think, to identify something fundamentally American in The War With The Mein’s underpinnings; I do not consider myself competent to fully unpack this aspect of the novel, but it’s hard for an observer not to notice that Acacia’s trade with the Lothan Aklun conflates a great sin of America’s past (industrialized slavery) with a great boogeyman of its preset (drugs), and that framing the trade as a product of the supremacy of one race over others is a twist of the knife. Mein aggression is, in part, the aggression of a marginalized race against a dominant one; “Had the entire world,” the assassin sneeringly wonders, “forgotten pride of race?” (102). Equally the ignorance of the Akarans is not just the ignorance of children kept in the dark by parents; it is the ignorance of the privileged, and their exiles are, in part, about challenging that ignorance. So, for example, when Aliver communes with the immortal sorcerers that lurk at the end of his quest, his eyes are opened:

All races are one? Aliver asked.

All races of the Known World are one, Nualo said. Forgetting this was the second crime done by humans. We suffer for it still.

Aliver would have to live with this new version of the world for some time for it to become real for him. […] He was so sure of his own failings that he had sought to hide them every day of his life. None of this had shaken his belief that the differences observed on people’s outsides mirrored equally indisputable differences within. Nualo and the other Santoth slipped this belief from beneath his feet and left him drifting upon a sea of entirely unimagined possibility. For reasons he did not fully acknowledge, this troubled him more than any of the other revelations he received from the Santoth. (416)

(I wonder, now, about that first answer: “All races of the Known World are one”. It has a weasel quality about it that makes me wonder what we may find in the Other Lands. As of the end of The War With The Mein, we have seen only one race from that continent: the Numrek, barbaric and brutal fighters — pale-skinned Orcs, essentially — who serve as Hanish Mein’s shock troops, and whose human-ness, or lack thereof, is a point of debate throughout the book. I had taken it as axiomatic that, per the logic of Aliver’s revelation, the Numrek would be confirmed as human, too. Re-reading the above I am not so sure.)

No zealot like a convert: Aliver is driven forward by a vision of dramatic reform: “He, when victorious, would not rule over them. He’d rule for them. By their permission and only in their interests” (613). The Lincolnesque tone there is unmistakeable, surely, and stirring. Nor is the attack of the white-but-powerless Mein against the brown-but-powerful Acacians as straightforward a revision as it seems: the Acacian empire is set up in such a way as to sustain the power of one race over others, but (as it turns out), the blind mechanisms of the state don’t much care which race is pulling the levers. Hanish finds “the Acacian template the only reasonable, achievable answer” (320) for many situations; the institutions, once created, are resistant to change. Indeed, we are told that Hanish’s rule is rather worse for the average citizen than Leodan’s was. So much for the actions of a few turning the world.

Or so you might think. But all of this is talk on behalf of a general populace whose absence leaves a ragged hole at the core of The War With The Mein. There is no street-level perspective in this book. Certainly, as I mentioned, the Akaran children all have their privilege challenged by their exile. For Mena, the challenge comes as she flees, and is confronted by the desolation and cruelty of an enormous mine run by her family. “Clearly,” she realises, “the world was not as she had been led to believe […] Those people, those children … they worked for her” (327). Dariel, meanwhile, is the most sympathetically inclined of the children from the start, being the youngest and having befriended some of the palace staff even before the trouble starts. But entering Talay, on his way to join Aliver’s crusade, he finds himself disoriented by the polychromatic display that leaves him feeling that his brown skin is “weak tea in a sea of black coffee” (494). “Nobody looked at his features and read his identity on his forehead”, he realises. “How could he be central to the workings of the world when nobody even knew who he was?” (496). And Corinn faces the realization that her dark-skinned features, so beautiful to her countrymen, are unappealing in the face of icy Mein standards of attractiveness. Yet each of these incidents is extremely limited, and none of them feel lasting. Mena becomes a goddess, moving from one privileged position into another; Dariel is back at his brother’s side, back at the heart of events, within pages of the above doubts; and although Corinn never fully loses her outsider status, she does find that she is attractive to at least some of the Mein. (The relationship that results is not the most successful part of the novel — indeed, neither Corinn’s story nor Mena’s is impervious to feminist critique. But they are well-done iterations of their kind, and may develop further.) It all leaves the grand sentiments of equality espoused by Aliver ringing slightly hollow. A story about the inadequacy of a model of history based solely on the actions of Great Individuals cannot get by only telling the stories of the elite, even if it is to reveal that, in the bigger picture, they too are constrained.

While reading the book, this does cause problems. It gets repetitive to be told that the Akarans (or at least Aliver) are fighting on behalf of a mass of people we don’t know, and whose plight we are to a large extent taking on trust; and at the same time, there is something unavoidably patronising about such a fight, for all Aliver’s tentative yearning towards a more democratic social order. Moreover it leaves some of the detail of the current social order – precisely how it sustains itself – vaguer than is desirable. But all this may be deliberate. I am more than half-convinced that it is, that the social gap in the book is part of the contract made, intended to be as keenly felt as the geographic vacuum within which these events take place. The War With The Mein appears to stop at a natural ending – the Akaran lineage is restored, and the Mein are vanquished. But this is, as an epilogue makes clear, a metastable situation at best. The relationship between Acacia and the Lothan Aklun has changed and will have to be addressed. But by all rights, the internal politics of the Empire will also be thrown into disarray. No trade with the Lothan Aklun means no Mist, and no Mist means that at least some people should be thinking about Aliver’s dream. So the end of The War With The Mein is an end that requires more story, and more radical change, to complete its argument. There are hints that Durham is well aware of this — a revelation that the characters we have become invested in are not the centre of the story would seem to be foreshadowed by the demonstration of the limits of their control; and Aliver is seen by at least some people not as a saviour but as a “lesser evil” — and it is Mena, once again, who asks the pertinent question. “Are we going to make a better world?” (682). I hope so. I want to believe so. I want to know what happens when the Whole World is the Known World. Because the map thing isn’t so small after all: to say that I like how Durham handles his map is to say that — so far — I like how he handles his world.

[January 2010: review of the second volume of the trilogy, The Other Lands]

Tracking

The David Gemmell Legend Award:

The DGLA will be presented for the very first time in 2009 for the best Fantasy novel of 2008. The award will be given to a work written in the ‘spirit’ of the late, great David Gemmell, a true Master of Heroic Fantasy.

The shortlist:

ABERCROMBIE, Joe – Last Argument of Kings (Gollancz/Pyr)
MARILLIER, Juliet – Heir to Sevenwaters (Tor UK)
SANDERSON, Brandon – The Hero of Ages (Tor US)
SAPKOWSKI, Andrzej – Blood of Elves (Gollancz)
WEEKS, Brent – The Way of Shadows (Orbit)

The winner:

Andrezj Sapkowski wins the Gemmell for Blood of Elves.

The stats:

Some stats: 10,963 votes overall, from 71 countries… Winning book, Sapkowski’s ‘Blood of Elves’ polled 2,309 VALIDATED votes

The ceremony, one:

The event got underway with fantasy author (and friend of the late David Gemmell) James Barclay coming out on stage and booming out Druss’ speech to the men before the battle at Dros Delnoch in Legend in an impressive and theatrical manner. Deborah J. Miller and Stan Nicholls were the main comperes for the evening and did a sterling job. Stan’s wife came out to give an excellent tribute to David Gemmell, and then Mr. Barclay returned for the charity auction. Seeing people having to sit on their hands for fear of spending too much money was quite amusing, with the signed, mint-condition first edition of Legend (which went for £500) being the highlight of the evening. The featured charity, Médecins Sans Frontières, raised quite a lot of money on the night, which was great.

The ceremony, two:

Mark and I had the great pleasure of helping out at last night’s David Gemmell Legend Awards. It was an amazing evening and it was lovely seeing fans, publishers, authors, agents and the press turn out for the inaugural event.

The winner of the overall prize was Andrzej Sapkowski – author Blood of Elves. Personally I’ve not read it – yet – but I am sure I will get around to it!

Below are some snaps we took whilst at the event, helping out and fangeeking.

Reaction:

This makes me rather happy, as out of the finalists, his Geralt novel, Blood of the Elves, is the only one that I liked without reservations. Nice timing on learning about this, as I received my copy of his second series, the Hussite Wars trilogy-opening Narrenturm, yesterday afternoon. While it’ll have to be a while before I review it (I have another Spanish-language book I’m reading and reviewing, as well as me being in the midst of translating a recent interview with that second author), I do plan on reading it this weekend and early next week.

But still, it’s good to know that this work of “heroic” fantasy was chosen to be the winner. I guess the millions in Europe and the thousands in the Anglo-American sphere have spoken, huh?

The Guardian:

“Our winning author is already a huge star in Europe and winning the award will hopefully ensure new readers experience his work in the excellent English translation from Gollancz,” said Deborah J Miller, award administrator and author of the Last Clansman and Swarmthief series. “Genre fantasy is often dismissed as being simply gung-ho or macho, as people outside genre circles tend to imagine it’s all about epic battles, weapons and warriors – in fact, it is all of those things and so much more. Contemporary fantasy fiction is about far more than escape to other realities. Freed of the constraints and preconceptions of other kinds of fiction, it holds up a mirror to reflect on this world and time through the prism of vivid characters and enthralling drama that engage the imagination like no other genre.”

Damien G Walter:

I would be the first to agree that there are many examples of contemporary fantasy that hold up a mirror to our world. Unfortunately the Gemmell shortlist are not among them. Thats not a condemnation of the books. They are good, exciting ‘F’antasy of the epic and heroic kind. I like Joe Abercrombie’s series particularly for its slightly knowing attitude to its subject matter and sense of humour. But these are not books of great reflection on the world as it is. And they are definitely not books to win over non-genre readers to the cause, as they will tend to confirm rather than dispell most of the prejudcies those readers hold.

Sam Jordison:

But even SF fans have it easy compared to followers of fantasy. These are the people Red Dwarf fans sneer at for being nerdy. They are the zit-ridden little brothers of the SF geeks, whose even-less-healthy obsessions include trolls, giving Anglo-Saxon names to phallic weapons, and maidens with magical powers.
[…]
But this list also shows some of fantasy’s strengths. The presence of Abercrombie and his witty send-up of the genre proves it might not be as po-faced as many suppose. Meanwhile, its international composition (with one New Zealander, one Brit, two Americans and one Pole) gives some idea of fantasy’s cross-cultural appeal – as does the fact that the impressive 10,963 people who voted on the shortlist did so from 74 different countries.

Mark Charan Newton:

So where is the wider analysis of the Gemmell Award books? Why hasn’t anyone cranked-open these bad boys (and girls – we are gender neutral here!) to open up a wider discussion on the merits of the books against each other, a real show-down to get people talking about what’s in the books, rather than talking about the people holding them?

I love reading fantasy fiction and all that it can offer, from the fast entertainment to the deep reflection, the challenging content. That sensawonder. But I think we can get caught up in the aesthetics of fantasy as a genre, rather than the content of the individual books. We’re asked to celebrate all that’s good about fantasy – and I’m totally for that – and I think the forums and blogs celebrate the genre well. The community throngs.

But how can we persuade those who look down upon us to treat fantasy literature with more respect if we’re not respectfully discussing these great books in detail ourselves?

Putting A Tag On It, 2008 Style

I’ve been reading some books recently, and over the next few days I’m going to talk about them, but I’m not sure what to call them. I started reading these books thanks to a confluence of factors, of which the most important are probably, one, enjoying Richard Morgan’s The Steel Remains and being interested in his stated influences, and two, having my lingering guilt about my relative lack of familiarity with the masterworks of genre fantasy given a prod by the appearance of Gollancz’s “ultimate fantasy” series earlier this year. It’s not as though – despite what you may think from the predominant focus of my posts here – that I don’t like genre fantasy. I read as many TSR novels as anyone when I was a teenager, plus the really obvious stuff like Tolkien, not to mention collecting several large armies for Warhammer Fantasy Battle, which is about as generic as you can get — though it’s true that I didn’t go the whole Eddings/Feist/Jordan route, and that until recently I was never seduced by D&D role-playing (and that as a result innumerable role-playing-related jokes have gone over my head over the years). On the other hand, for whatever reason, I was never sucked into the history of the genre in the way that I was for sf. I know enough about the adventurers-with-swords subgenre to be aware of Conan, Jirel, Elric, and Kane; to know of L. Sprague de Camp’s Sword and Sorcery anthologies and Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Sword and Sorceress anthologies; David Gemmel’s Legend, and Samuel Delany’s Nevèrÿon books. (Not to mention Drizzt Do’Urden, of course – or Gotrek and Felix.) But I’ve had little first-hand experience, so this week’s posts are about me dipping a toe into that history. The books I read were determined by what I had to hand, although most of them also fall onto that ethereal list of Things I Should Read Some Day that floats around in the back of my head: some of Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and Mouser stories, Poul Anderson’s The Broken Sword, some of Michael Moorcock’s Elric stories, and Joanna Russ’s The Adventures of Alyx. Deciding what to call them seems a helpful first step.

In 1961, in a piece written for George Scithers’ fanzine AMRA, Moorcock posed a question:

I feel we should have another general name to include the sub-genre of books which deal with Middle Earths and lands and worlds based on this planet, worlds which exist only in some author’s vivid imagination. In this sub-genre I would classify books like The Worm Ouroboros, Jurgen, The Lord of the Rings, The Once and Future King, the Gray Mouser/Fafhrd series, the Conan series, The Broken Sword, The Well of the Unicorn, etc. […] stories of high adventure, generally featuring a central hero very easy to identify oneself with. For the most part they are works of escapism, anything else usually being secondary (exceptions, I would agree, are Jurgen and The Once and Future King. But all of them are tales told for the tale’s sake, and the authors have obviously thoroughly enjoyed the telling. (reprinted in The Stealer of Souls, Del Rey 2008, p.5)

This was, I believe, before the full emergence of fantasy as the commercial behemoth that it is today. Indeed. Even in a 1971 issue of Vector recently sent to me by Mark Plummer, a review of Andre Norton’s Witch World novels feels able to state that “Fantasy fiction has never had a wide following”, and that it’s only recently that significant amounts of original fantasy have started to be published in paperback form. (Which also leads the reviewer to state some cautionary notes about the potential weaknesses of fantasy series …) Moorcock’s suggestion for “the best name for the sub-genre, considering its general form and roots” is still with us — although I’m not sure how many contemporary readers would consider all of the works he lists as “epic fantasy”, which to me implies a certain amount of sprawl in both cast and geography. Indeed, the entry in The Encyclopedia of Fantasy for that category argues that by the mid-nineties “epic fantasy” had been muddied to the point of uselessness by publisher over-use and other factors, and today it seems to indicate the Tolkienian tradition above all others. Certainly the two attempts to define the term that have crossed my radar recently, one by Rose Fox and one by Michael M. Jones, both pretty much take Tolkien alone as epic fantasy’s starting point.

Meanwhile, back in the sixties, in response to Moorcock’s request Fritz Leiber suggested “Sword and Sorcery”:

I feel more certain than ever that this field should be called the sword-and-sorcery story. This accurately describes the points of culture-level and supernatural element and also immediately distinguishes it from the cloak-and-sword (historical adventure) story—and (quite incidentally) from the cloak-and-dagger (international espionage) story too! (Fritz Leiber, AMRA, July 1961)

Helped along by a series of reprint anthologies edited by L. Sprague de Camp starting in 1963, this has also stuck around. More or less. In truth it’s a term I see used more often by critics than by readers or publishers (though of course there may be an observer bias in that); the Encyclopedia notes the term’s “garishness”, and that may have something to do with it, but it also seems like an odd fit for what it’s used to describe. Certainly it was a surprise to me to see the Encyclopedia assert that “There may be a useful distinction between Heroic Fantasy and Sword and Sorcery, but no-one has yet made it” (some commenters on the Wikipedia heroic fantasy talk page seem similarly surprised; and the Gemmel Award uses heroic fantasy unashamedly, although they don’t exactly give a clear definition of it), because if you’d asked me as a relatively naive reader, “heroic fantasy” sounds like exactly the right label for most of what I’ve read recently. I risk extrapolating too far from limited data here, but sword and sorcery sounds larksome; heroic fantasy conveys to me something more serious, as well as identifying the focus of most of these stories as tales about identity (if not character) and heroism.

Lankhmar cover Among the authors I read, the one whose work does strike me as sword and sorcery is the canonical example: Fritz Leiber. The “ultimate fantasy” edition of Lankhmar I had to hand comprises the first four collections of stories about the barbarian Fafhrd and the ex-wizard’s apprentice, the Gray Mouser although — and I didn’t realise this at first, since publication credits are conspicuously absent from the book — the stories are presented in order of internal chronology, not publication. This means that, for instance, the knowing first sentence of Swords and Deviltry (1970) — “Sundered from us by gulfs of time and stranger dimensions dreams the ancient world of Nehwon with its towers and skulls and jewels, its swords and sorceries” (3) — was written well after the term became accepted. It also means the stories may have been written to fit an idea of the subgenre that already had some shape to it. Certainly the shape of them felt more immediately comfortable to me, with my modern-reader expectations, than some of the other books I’m going to discuss; moreover Leiber’s stories are more concerned with conveying the excitement of adventure, almost for adventure’s own sake, than any of the others. The world in which the stories take place is not a whitewashed fantasyland (rape and other such unpleasantnesses are mentioned in casual conversation), but the stories themselves are filled with humour of incident and observation. This leads to an at-times odd, but also effective, tension between exuberance and sobriety, one particularly literal manifestation of which is Fafhrd’s reaction on overhearing that a woman he’s just rescued is to be sold as a slave — the revelation “filled him with a mixed feeling he’d never known before: an overmastering rage and also a desire to laugh hugely” (35).

This is not to say, sadly, that I think these stories are much good. I enjoyed what I read more than my only previous encounter with Leiber (reading The Big Time as one of the nominees for the BSFA 50th retro award earlier this year), but in the end conceded defeat at the end of Swords Against Deviltry. So I didn’t actually read any of the earliest Fafhrd/Mouser stories, which seem mostly to be collected in the second book, Swords Against Death (also 1970, revised from Two Sought Adventure). If anyone tells me those tales are dramatically better, I may be tempted to continue. Part of the problem with Swords Against Deviltry, after all, is that it’s all origin stories: a vignette (“Induction”, 1970) introducing the world and the characters; an overlong novella introducing Fafhrd (“The Snow Women”, 1970); an incredibly generic novellette introducing Mouse (“The Unholy Grail”, 1962); and a better, though despite its Hugo-winning status still only average, novella detailing the first meeting of the two (“Ill Met in Lankhmar”, 1970). It would be hard for me to deny that I haven’t experienced the partnership in full flow.

However, it seems that Leiber’s style is simply not to my taste. In between the passages I admired (these were often the passages that used omniscient perspective to best effect; the final one-sentence paragraph that closes “Ill Met in Lankhmar”, describing Our Heroes’ disgusted exodus from the city, is pretty fine) there was much that fell flat. There was, for example, what to my ear is a wearying over-reliance on adverbs to underline the tone of conversation; by the end of their first page of conversation in “Ill Met in Lankhmar”, either Fafhrd or the Mouser or both has commented, answered, explained, demanded, suggested, rapped out, directed, remarked, or mused. There is a tendency to deaden action scenes with laboured, move-by-move descriptions. And while some of the humour is slyly subversive, the more deliberate absurdisms — when one character manages to shrug while jumping from a high place down to a low place, it’s surely deliberately absurd, as must be a daring escape via rocket-powered ski jump – fell flat. It may be deliberately farcical that Fafhrd spends most of “The Snow Women” running back and forth between different groups, but in the reading it felt like a formulaic, repetitive plot. And, as a final insult, the turn of “Ill Met in Lankhmar” depends on the embarrassingly thorough fridging of both Fafhrd and Mouser’s partners, at least one of whom had been a fairly satisfactory character to that point.

Perhaps the most interesting thread running through Swords Against Deviltry is an argument – overplayed in “The Snow Women”, underplayed in “Ill Met in Lankhmar” – about the nature of civilization, and the place of characters like Fafhrd and Mouser within it. Fafhrd in “The Snow Women” finds civilization totemic, representing an escape from everything he dislikes about his barbarian life, though plenty of people are ready to warn him that it is unworthy of such adoration. His mother describes it as a “putrid festering”, while others warn him that civilization will darken his soul. And it does: there is much of the country boy going to the big city in Fafhrd’s trajectory, and in “Ill Met in Lankhmar” the character is a less certain, more troubled man (although still somewhat more upstanding than Mouser, whose heart seems more easily darkened by events). But where in, say, the Elric stories I read the analogous struggles going on in Elric’s heart are central, here the focus never wavers from the plot; Leiber’s work seems to flow best when it is in motion, rather than self-considering repose. I don’t know if this is a sustainable difference between sword and sorcery and heroic fantasy, but I’m going to call the rest of the books I’m going to discuss heroic fantasy and be damned: because the most interesting thing about each of them is what they do with their heroes.