Ill Met in Lankhmar by Leiber, Fritz, 1970

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I am always reticent about picking up a book that is a part of a long series, because I am afraid that I will get drawn into something that will suck all my time and keep me from reading a variety of books. That is why I have stayed away from George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series, and Tad Williams' Otherland books. And even though I really do not like fantasy, I found myself drawn deeply into Fritz Leiber's Ill Met in Lanhkmar, which is a later entry in his multi-volume Fafhrd and Gray Mouser series of stories. Fritz Leiber is an incredible writer, both technically and stylistically, and I have to say that this book may be one of his absolute best. Five out of five stars.

For those of you who are not yet fans of Leiber's Fafhrd and Gray Mouser series, they tell the continuing tales of these two master thieves. Ill Met in Lankhmar was written in 1970 after many other novels and short stories, but tells the story of how these two anti-heroes met. Fafhrd and the Mouse one evening surreptitiously ambushed two members of the Lankhmar Thieves’ Guild as they alighted from a job. Working together to recover the treasure, the two men decided to pick up Fafhrd's wife and retire to Mouse's hovel to celebrate with his wife. The four proceed to get very drunk, and the wives commiserate the life of a thief’s wife. As the wives got to know each other they learned that each had pledged vengeance against Kovas, the Lord of the Thieves, for crimes he had committed against them and their families. As the night and alcohol wore on the women convinced the men to redeem their reputations. In a fit of drunkenness the men made off to the Thieves’ Guild, promising only to do reconnaissance. They secreted their way into the Guild house disguised as beggars (the Beggar's Guild and the Thieves Guild shared the same domicile). Before being captured they observed Krovas' magician Hristomilo dispatch his giant rats and his familiar, a vile monkey like creature named Slivikin on some unknown errand. They were nabbed and brought before Krovas where their deception was pierced. They used force to escape, killing a few guards, and returned to Mouse's quarters only to learn that Slivikin and the rats had killed their wives and burned the rooms in retaliation for stealing from the thieves earlier in the night. Their revenge was rage fueled and almost biblical.

This story is probably the best written story that I have read in the past year. Leiber is a master of the written word, and this piece is an excellent example of what a talented wordsmith can accomplish with genre work. Leiber's characters were excellently drawn; his settings were masterfully placed, and kept in the background where they belong; the plot was amazing; Leiber moved the story along effortlessly to its conclusion, and his use of the more subtle tools of foreshadowing, tension building, and even the use of silence was excellent. There are so many worthy quotations from this book that I don't quite know where to start. Here is the opening paragraph. Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser are waiting ahead for the two master thieves of the Guild who have just robbed a store in Lankhmar:

"Silent as specters, the tall and the fat thief edged past the dead, noose-strangled watch-leopard, out the thick, lock-picked door of Jengao the Gem Merchant, and strolled east on Cash Street through the thin black night-smog of Lankhmar, City of Sevenscore Thousand Smokes.

Leiber also masterfully turns the tables on the reader once Fafhrd and the Mouse return to the Mouse's home. Up until that point it had been a fun romp through Lankhmar by two intoxicated master swordsmen, and the language of the story reflected that tone very well. In reply to the wives request to do something about Krovas, the Mouse replies:

"Come now, pet," he cried lightly as he danced about the room, silk-stuffing more cracks against the thickening night-smog and stirring up and feeding the fire in the stove, "and you too, beauteous Lady Vlana. For the past month Fafhrd has been hitting the Guild-thieves where it hurts them most - in their purses a-dangle between their legs. His highjackings of the loot of their robberies have been like so many fierce kicks in their groins. Hurts worse, believe me, than robbing them of life with a swift, near painless sword slash or thrust. And tonight I helped him in is worthy purpose - and will eagerly do so again. Come, drink we up all." Under his handling, one of the new jugs came uncorked with a pop and he darted about brimming silver cups and mugs.

But after they return home and find Hristomilo's handiwork, and realize that they watched him as he dispatched Slivikin on the mission and conjure a spell to help:

Student thieves poured out of the doors ahead at the screeching and foot-pounding, and then poured back as the saw the fierce point of flames and the two demon-faced oncomers brandishing their long, shining swords.

One skinny little apprentice - he could hardly have been ten years old - lingered too long. Graywand thrust him pitilessly through as his big eyes bulged and his small mouth gaped in horror and plea to Fafhrd for mercy.

And still later after killing and becoming drenched in blood:

Their madness was gone and all their rage too - vented to the last red atomy and gutted to more that satiety. They had no more urge to kill Krovas or any other of the thieves than to swat flies. With horrified inner eye Fafhrd saw the pitiful face of the child-thief he'd skewered in his lunatic anger.

I still can not say that I like fantasy, since most of it makes me want to hurl books across the room. But I am forever now a convert to Fritz Leiber's fantasy. This story is an absolutely golden example of what can be done with the "honor among thieves" motif. Leiber builds up both sides of these rich character's antipodal personalities very well, and really shows how the dichotomy in that motif works.

Copyright © 2008, Gregory Tidwell

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 5 star(s)

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