I remember when I first encountered Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser. I was still in high school and a family friend was working his way through the five ‘Swords’ story collections that had been published at that point. On his recommendation I picked up an anthology with “Ill Met in Lankhmar”. I was immediately sucked in by the dark, weird story and by the relationship between the seven foot tall Northern barbarian and the small, mercurial thief and former wizard’s apprentice.
As soon as I’d finished the story, I forced my mother to take me to the nearest bookstore where I could get Swords and Devilitry, Swords Against Death, and the other books in the series. The adventures of this unlikely pair have always seemed to me to be the purest stuff of swords and sorcery, the best the subgenre has had to offer. The only book that ever really competed was Michael Shea’s 1982 collection Nifft the Lean. The stories were if anything darker and weirder than the adventures of Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, and Nifft wasn’t especially likable, but it too was the pure quill, the real deal.
Looking back after nearly seventeen years reading for reviews and I guess twelve years reading for year’s best anthologies, I’m struck by the fact that these were cycles of short stories. The modern swords and sorcery, as exemplified by Steven Erikson, Joe Abercrombie, Scott Lynch and so on, is very much a thing of long novels and longer story cycles. Very few writers are attempting to put the kind of depth and complexity into their swords and sorcery short stories today that Leiber, Shea, Moorcock with Elric and others were a quarter century and more ago.
Well, last year Garth Nix wrote a story that may be the beginnings of something very special indeed. The April 2007 issue of Baen’s Universe included his novelette “Sir Hereward and Mr Fitz Go to War Again”, a wonderful piece of stuff about the tall and reasonably handsome Sir Hereward and his partner in crime, the weird sorcerous puppet Mr Fitz. I won’t go into any details about the story, other than to say it’s been nominated for a handful of awards already, is in at least one year’s best anthology, and you can read it here for free.
And that brings us to Ann and Jeff VanderMeer’s forthcoming pirate anthology, Fast Ships, Black Sails. The book closes with a long novelette (or short novella), “Beyond the Sea Gate of the Scholar-Pirates of Sarskoe”. It’s the second “Sir Hereward and Mister Fitz” adventure and is probably my favorite story by Nix to date. A swords and sorcery tale very much in the mode of Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, it opens with our two heroes attempting to resurrect a mission gone awry by taking ship with a particularly fearsome pirate who has intercepted some of the equipment that the pair need in order to traverse the Secret Channels, storm the Sea Gate built by the scholar-pirates of Sarskoe, and enter their long hidden fortress. Much follows – cannibalism, betrayal, sorcerous battles and even deicide – in what really is a marvelous story.
How good is it? Well, it’s worth the $14.95 price tag for Fast Ships, Black Sails by itself. Quite honestly, were you to hate every other story in the anthology (and you won’t) you’d still be in front. I’ve heard that likely we will hear more from Hereward and Fitz, so pre-order the anthology now, and join me in the wait for more from this intrepid duo.