Tor.com Readers, Lend me Your Ears: Fritz Leiber’s Lankhmar on Audio

Hello, Tor.com! Some of you may recognize my name since Tor.com short fiction blogger John Klima has taken my name in vain a couple of times. Well, now I’m joining the Tor.com blogger family, so I wanted to formally introduce myself and say hello.

So, for those of you who don’t feel like clicking through to see Klima’s posts or my profile: I’m the editor of the anthologies Wastelands: Stories of the Apocalypse, Seeds of Change, and The Living Dead. I’m also the assistant editor at The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction.

In addition to that, I’m a big fan of audiobooks and fiction podcasts, so I thought I’d talk about those a bit for Tor.com. I’ve got some professional credentials in that realm as well—in the past, I’ve reviewed audiobooks for both Locus and Publishers Weekly. That’s not all I’m going to talk about in my Tor.com space—I’ve got some other ideas in mind—but that’s what I’m going to start with today, by discussing Audible.com’s audio adaptation of Fritz Leiber’s Swords and Deviltry.

So, audiobooks—people usually love them or hate them. The thing I like about them is it allows you make a driving commute productive even if you’re sitting in traffic, or make spending three hours watching a football game not a complete waste of time. They can also give you extra motivation for working out or doing some cardio—because you want to get back to where you left off, and it’s a hard thing to just sit and listen to an audiobook without doing something else at the same time (at least for me it is).

In any case, the first audiobook I want to talk about is a new release exclusive to Audible.com—Swords and Deviltry, the first book in Fritz Leiber’s classic Fafhrd and Gray Mouser series of swords-and-sorcery tales.

When I heard that Audible was making these available on audio (for the first time), I was quite excited—I don’t have much time for leisure reading these days (most of my reading time being devoted to specific anthology projects), so it’s a pleasure to be able to catch up or revisit certain authors or books on audio. And the Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories have been long been on my list of things to catch up with. After reading “Ill Met in Lankhmar” some years ago, I was quite interested to read more in the series, but all I’d ever managed to get through, before I was distracted by other things, was this book, Swords and Deviltry, which collects, chronologically, the first batch of Lankhmar stories.

 

First, a little background. The Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories were one of Fritz Leiber’s most enduring creations, depicting the adventures of the Northman barbarian Fafhrd and the ex-wizard Gray Mouser. Though both come from disparate backgrounds, they find a common ground in thieving and swordplay, and when they meet in the abovementioned “Ill Met in Lankhmar,” they make fast friends, despite the fact that they were both trying to rob the same fellows. The entire run of stories was written over the course of 40 years or so, most if not all of which have been collected in seven volumes, which have come into and gone out of print numerous times over the years. (Currently, they’re available in book form from Dark Horse.)

So it was with great anticipation that I started listening. But man, I forgot how boring and long that first story is. By which I mean “The Snow Women” (not the short, page-and-a-half preface titled “Induction” which is actually the first “story” in the book). This tale tells the story of Fafhrd’s origins, where he grew up in the wilds of the North, and how he came to the great city of Lankhmar.

Following this up is “The Unholy Grail,” the origin of Gray Mouser. It’s better than “The Snow Women,” but still, it tries the reader’s patience. It’s really not until “Ill Met in Lankhmar” that the narrative really starts flowing, because what makes this pair work as a duo is the fact that they are a duo—the way they interact with and play off each other is what makes the stories work.

But even that story is not without flaw—and it certainly is not without flaw in audio form. The narrator, Jonathan Davis, does a pretty good job with this production overall—he has a facility with accents that allows him to give different, distinct voices to both Fafhrd and Gray Mouser, as well as enough range to give voice to the supporting cast. However, the problem is that some stories are just not ideally suited to being read aloud. While listening to this, I couldn’t help but think of that story about Harrison Ford and Star Wars, in which he complains to George Lucas: “George, you can write this stuff, but you sure can’t say it.”

Listening to the story on audio—or perhaps just the fact of re-reading it and being a bit older and wiser than when I read it the first time—really seemed to magnify the ridiculousness of Fafhrd and Gray Mouser’s scheme (which I don’t want to spoil for you here). Admittedly, they were drunk when they came up with it, and they had some good motivations for going through with their plan, no matter how ill-planned, but it kind of throws you out of the story when characters do something that makes you go “You’re going to do what-now?”

One problem with this book—with the whole Fafhrd and Gray Mouser series—is one that afflicts a lot of series as they progress: instead of being presented in order of publication, the stories are presented in internal chronological order. Unfortunately, in this case, that means the book begins with one of the weaker (and very long) stories. I don’t see many readers becoming invested in Fafhrd and Gray Mouser’s lives without first seeing them in action together—since, as I’ve said, their interaction is what makes them so compelling. This is not a fault with the audio edition, of course—Audible is producing on audio a book that previously existed—but it’s a problem nonetheless.

So, overall, I have to say I’m pretty disappointed, and although the entire Fafhrd and Gray Mouser series is available now from Audible, I find that the other books are not terribly high on my listening list. But Audible is doing a lot of other interesting books at the moment, including their Audible Frontiers program, which is a whole line of exclusive science fiction/fantasy audio content available only on Audible. So be sure to go check out some of their other offerings, and/or watch this space for further commentary by me.

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