It is a well-established article of faith that if you love modern epic or high fantasy, then you acknowledge a debt to J.R.R. Tolkien‘s The Lord of the Rings. But what if your tastes run more to heroic fantasy or sword-and-sorcery? Or contemporary fantasy or urban fantasy? To which antecedents do you tip your hat in those cases? Obviously, there are a number of options for such a wide spread of subgenres but, as it happens, you could probably save yourself a lot of legwork by just saying ‘Thank you, Fritz Leiber’.
How so? Well, he published Conjure Wife in Unknown Worlds in 1943 (expanded and released as a stand-alone novel ten years later), a dark tale of witchcraft in contemporary small-town America. That’s forty years before Terri Windling‘s Borderland series of shared world anthologies was launched, and a good half a century before the first Anita Blake: Vampire Hunter novel. And Our Lady of Darkness (1977) brings the paranormal to the streets of modern-day San Francisco a decade ahead of the curve. That’s to name just two.
But his crowning glory and the series before which all fans of Joe Abercrombie or Scott Lynch should abase themselves (just kidding; reading the books will be sufficient – no need to abase!) is, of course, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. Making their debut in the August 1939 issue of Unknown (as it was then), in Leiber’s first published story, ‘Two Sought Adventure’, the nimble thief and the giant barbarian are the forerunners of recent fantasy’s morally grey protagonists. Shunning the clichés of fantasy like a thief shuns the light, Leiber guides Fafhrd and the Mouser through the gritty, decadent streets of Lankhmar – the prototype for every mediaeval fantasy city from Thieves’ World to Ankh-Morpork – feasting, drinking, wenching, fighting, winning and losing fortunes.
We heartily recommend letting Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser be your guides through the streets and alleys of Lankhmar. Just make sure your wallet is securely hidden. And you don’t drink anything you haven’t seen someone else drink first. Oh, and not in your best clothes, eh? That’s the way.
The first three Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser books are shown above. You can find the rest of Fritz Leiber’s work via his Author page on the Gateway website and read about him in his entry in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.