Review: Fritz Leiber’s The Knight and Knave of Swords
I wanted to like this book. I really did.
At a glance, it seemed like a shoe-in! See, The Knight and Knave of Swords is a collection of Fafhrd and The Gray Mouser stories.
You may be unfamiliar with the names, but you probably know these two characters already. The hilariously terrible cover isn’t a very good reminder, so let me dig up something a little more accurate.
Fafhrd (my spellchecker hates this guy), the big one, is pretty much your standard fantasy barbarian dude- while the Gray Mouser is a thief from D&D. Or rather, D&D’s Thief is the Gray Mouser with the serial numbers filed off, down to having sling as a weapon proficiency, and being able to use magic items at high level (the Gray Mouser used to be a magician’s apprentice before he turned to crime).
Fritz Leiber is one of the big names of the Sword & Sorcery genre, up there with Moorcock and Howard. The first Fafhrd and The Gray Mouser stories were published in 1939, back in the days of the pulps. The premise of these stories is pretty simple: these two guys are Best Bros For Life(tm), and they go around fighting monsters, rescuing princesses, and stealing treasure with varying degrees of success. Leiber wrote dozens of stories featuring the pair, over the course of 50 years. Pretty impressive.
So naturally, when I saw this book at the used bookstore, I picked it up, thinking it’s going to be a straightforward, swashbuckly romp.
I was wrong.
See, here’s the thing. The Knight and Knave of Swords is actually the last F&GM (seriously I’m tired of typing their names out) novel. And on top of that, it’s a bit more continuity heavy than I expected. In comparison, all of Howard’s Conan stories work on their own- they may reference earlier exploits in passing, but most of them tend to ‘reset’ one way or the other at the beginning (usually with Conan getting captured by the story’s bad guys).
This book? Not so much. It starts off with F&GM holed up on some place called Rime Isle, which is pretty much Fantasy Iceland, I guess? It’s cold and nordic, at least. Apparently, in their last adventure, F&GF saved Fantasy Iceland from a bunch of bad guys, including Odin and Loki (who are hilariously described as “wandering hobo-gods,” in one of Leiber’s wonderful turns of phrase). Fafhrd lost his hand in said adventure- if you look close at the cover you can see the hook he’s got in its place.
Where I was expecting F&GM to go out adventuring and monster-stabbing…they really didn’t. Really, they spend most of the book just sort of faffing about (or should it be Fafhrding about?) Rime Isle, having settled into a sort of comfortable middle-age. This…is about as exciting as it sounds. Every now and again things look like they may get interesting, with scheming gods cursing the pair, or deadly assassins coming to kill them…but these threads end rather anticlimatically.
The most straightforward adventure is the second story/novella, “The Mer She.” While captaining a trade voyage, The Gray Mouser picks up a sexy stowaway…who turns out to be a siren ocean-spirit lady who tries to sink the ship. Standard “tale of the sea,” right?
It’s just that she’s like, fourteen.
Here’s some quotes:
“The picture of innocence, but the odor (he knew it now) all sex.”
And, in the same paragraph:
“Her hair was somewhat the same shade as that of silver-blond, thirteen-year-old Gale back on Rime Isle […] And she was, apparently, not a great deal older.”
It gets worse; The Gray Mouser’s reaction upon finding this underage stowaway on his ship is as follows. First, he wakes her up…by pinching her nipple. Then (after she doesn’t scream or anything after getting molested by the creepy adventurer-man), he ties her up with some silk ribbons, locks her in a chest, has that chest brought to his cabin…where he ties her to his bed and it’s made pretty clear that he sleeps with her.
It’s Fifty Shades of the Gray Mouser.
I will not apologize for that joke.
There’s all kinds of sexual/sociological issues to unpack in a ‘standard’ temptress narrative, but the explicit sexualization of underage characters (even if they are part fish) just made it even worse. I was almost ready to write this off as a one-time thing…until I got to the last novella in the collection, “The Mouser Goes Below.”
Based on the title, I was thinking “hell yes! The Mouser’s going down into some underworld dungeon, and he’s gonna fight Ray Harryhausen skeletons and shit!”
Again, I was wrong.
The story is…honestly kind of nonsensical. Like, Loki teams up with Death’s slutty sister Pain in order to lay a curse on The Gray Mouser. The curse manifests in The Gray Mouser being drug underground. Like, not into a tunnel or a cave or anything, but just magically buried alive. The Gray Mouser pretty much spends the whole story buried (but not dead), occasionally getting dragged through the earth, because…magic. Or something.
Meanwhile, Fafhd and a bunch of his friends see The Gray Mouser get pulled down into the earth, so they do the logical thing and start digging for him. This hole-digging is about as interesting as one would expect.
There’s also some business about an escaped cabin girl who goes by ‘Fingers.’ Part of her thing is she always wears lambskin gloves, so her hands are nice and soft whenever she dispenses handjobs to the pirate crew that captured her- really, there’s a whole like two page thing on her backstory and how pirate-handjob-heirarchy works. And that’s still not the most gratuitous part of the book.
That’d be sometime later, where The Gray Mouser, still trapped underground, is dragged to another fucking continent, apparently for the sole purpose of playing voyeur as some princess he hooked up with a few stories ago has an explicit lesbian BDSM threesome with her handmaidens. The Gray Mouser, trapped in the wall, can do nothing but watch as Pain gives him an evil handjob.
What. The. Fuck.
The fact that I went into the story expecting swordfights and derring-do makes this even worse. It’s not as if The Gray Mouser stumbled into sexytimes while on the way to one adventure or another- he literally can’t do a thing but watch as the fantasy porno unfolds in front of him. Bluh.
I gave up on the book at that point, despite there being like 70 some pages left to go. I skipped ahead to the end, where the characters talk about how Fafhrd went up onto a ship made of clouds and banged a bunch of sky-spirit-ladies, again, for no real reason that I can seem to connect to the plot.
The Knight and Knave of Swords was published in 1991 (though the various stories within had been released in magazines in the 80’s)- Leiber died in 1992. It’s a shame, really, that the F&GM stories end on such a down-note. I wonder if Leiber just ran out of ideas, and said “fuck it, I’m gonna write some purple-prose porn!”
Now, I don’t consider myself a prude by any means. But this was pretty much the most gratuitously shoehorned in sex scene I’ve seen in a long-ass time. Hell, if you want to work some naked ladies into a story, good on you! I’m just a snob, I guess, in that I’m looking for said ladies to be of legal age, consenting, and at least tangentially related to the plot. Maybe they’re just there to deliver a pizza, I dunno, just try to have it make sense narratively. It’s possible!
So yeah. I’m not sure if Leiber’s as pervy a bastard as, say, Piers Anthony, but the recurring sexualization of underage girls really throws up some red flags. I’m vaguely reminded of some other saucy moments from another Leiber novel I read, A Spectre is Haunting Texas. But as I vaguely recall, at least those moments were with adult characters, so it’s not as bad.
All and all, reading The Knight and Knave of Swords is like hanging out with an uncle you used to think was pretty cool…but now that you’re older, he just seems kind of creepy. I might be able to find some Leiber stories from earlier in his career that aren’t so bad, but I get the feeling this book is going to cast a pall over any other Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories I read in the future.
Silver lining, if I stop reading Leiber, my spellchecker will probably thank me for it.