Novella Review: “Scylla’s Daughter” by Fritz Leiber

(Cover by Vernon Kramer. Fantastic, May 1961.)

Who Goes There?

Fritz Leiber, after a hiatus in the ’50s, returned in full force at the end of that decade, in no small part due to new management over at Fantastic and Amazing Stories. Cele Goldsmith doesn’t get brought up much when talking about great magazine editors, but she really should be; she not only made Fantastic a viable outlet for short fantasy, she all but singlehandedly revived Leiber’s Fafhrd and Gray Mouser series. For the November 1959 issue of Fantastic all the fiction pieces were by Leiber, in a special Leiber tribute, and we also got “Lean Times in Lankhmar,” the first Fafhrd and Gray Mouser story in six years. From then on we would get at least one Fafhrd and Gray Mouser story in Fantastic every year until 1965, when Goldsmith stepped down. While Leiber stayed consistently productive with other things after Goldsmith left, it would take him a few years to return to the series that now stands as his most lasting achievement.

For some context: Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser are a barbarian and thief duo who take on odd jobs for fun and profit in the secondary world of Nehwon, and most often the city of Lankhmar. “Scylla’s Daughter,” however, does not take place in Lankhmar, but on the high seas. This is like my eighth or nineth story from the series—I’ve lost count a bit. “Scylla’s Daughter” garnered a Hugo nomination for Best Short Fiction (the Best Novella category did not exist yet), and would serve as the base for The Swords of Lankhmar.

Placing Coordinates

First published in the May 1961 issue of Fantastic, which is on the Archive. Despite the Hugo nomination, “Scylla’s Daughter” has been reprinted a grand total of two times, first in the fantasy anthology Barbarians, edited by Robert Adams, Martin H. Greenberg, and Charles G. Waugh, which seems to have been printed only once; the second is Modern Classics of Fantasy, edited by Gardner Dozois, which is a beefier anthology and which is easy enough to find used. While it does feel weird for this novella to have appeared so rarely, it did get expanded into the sole Fafhrd and Gray Mouser novel, The Swords of Lankhmar, in 1968, which I suppose rendered “Scylla’s Daughter” both obsolete and non-canon. Sometimes you get novellas which, when expanded into novels, stand well apart from their novel counterparts, but this is not one of those times.

Enhancing Image

We start on the Squid, a grain ship that’s moving as part of a fleet from Lankhmar to a neighboring city. If you think we’re gonna get off the Squid and hit land at some point, think again: this story is entirely seafaring. Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser have been recruited basically as mercenaries for the fleet, and the fleet is gonna need some manpower considering a) it’s a trading fleet with quite a bit of booty worth stealing, and b) the previous fleets sent on this trade deal never returned, which is a bit ominous. Admittedly a government, even in Fantasy Land, hiring Fafhrd and the Mouser to guard a grain ship would be like if the Japanese government hired Lupin III and Jigen as bank security. That’s fine, it’s all in good fun. But why are we here? What kind of arrangement is this?

Thankfully the Mouser, being a cunning prick, is fluent in Expositionese, and lets us in on the situation:

“This fleet bears a gift of grain from Overlord Glipkerio to Movarl of the Eight Cities in gratitude for Movarl’s sweeping the Mingol pirates from the Inner Sea and mayhap diverting the steppe-dwelling Mingols from assaulting Lankhmar across the Sinking Land. Movarl needs grain for his hunter-farmers turned cityman-soldiers and especially to supply his army relieving his border city of Klelg Nar, which the Mingols besiege. Fafhrd and I are, you might say, a small but mighty rear-guard for the grain and for certain more delicate items of Glipkerio’s gift.”

The “more delicate items” are supposed at first to be some animals onboard: a dozen white rats that are really big and are allegedly really intelligent. The real gift, however, aside from the grain, might be Hisvet, a demoiselle (a young noblewoman) and fellow passenger on the Squid. Hisvet is quite beautiful, so beautiful that she soon drives Fafhrd and the Mouser to the depths of simpery—which they may or may not regret down the road. Hisvet has a peculiar relationship with rats in general, and she has a special connection with the dozen white rats in particular, which at first sounds innocuous.

There’s a pretty funny scene where the Mouser and Hisvet are tasting plums and tossing them overboard one after another. “A shark following in the wake of the Squid got a stomachache.” In general this is a pretty funny novella, especially in the first half before things get serious, and it demonstrates Leiber’s lively sense of humor that sometimes worked in tandem with his sense of horror. Indeed “Scylla’s Daughter” could almost be considered a horror-comedy, between Fafhrd and the Mouser’s rom-com shenanigans with Hisvet and the somewhat foreboding setting, with these ships at sea in an area that is supposedly haunted by shipwrecks—not accidental shipwrecks even, but plunderings and sabotages.

The word of the day is “rat.” We’re talking literal rats and also rats in the metaphorical sense, between the rats onboard and, for instance, the Mouser’s willingness to screw over Fafhrd if it means getting closer to Hisvet. We know that Our Anti-Heroes™ that are gonna make it to the end in one piece, but what was being bought and at what cost? That I’ll leave for the spoilers section, but I’ll say that if you’re familiar with how the Fafhrd and Gray Mouser series works even a little bit then you’ll figure that the love triangle at the story’s center will have to be broken somehow. Complicating things is Frix, Hisvet’s devoted maid, with whom she has a rather, hmm, odd relationship (put a pin in that one). Also complicating things is that rats have been known to sink ships (gnawing through wood and rope and all that), and nobody on the Squid is keen on having the white rats aboard.

At one point, in what is kind of a surreal episode, the fleet crosses paths with someone who quite literally seems to have come from nowhere, a German adventurer named Karl Treuherz. If you’ve been wondering as to how the cover on this issue of Fantastic relates to “Scylla’s Daughter,” that’s Karl on top of his two-headed sea serpent. We even get talk of Homer’s Odyssey and the original Scylla, a six-headed sea dragon, although this raises the question of how Karl could know about Homer or anything from our well. After all, Nehwon is a secondary world; it does not share history with Earth. Well, Karl isn’t from Nehwon; he can travel between different worlds. This is a bit much to put on the reader in the middle of a seafaring adventure, even if “Scylla’s Daughter” is a relatively late entry in the series. Karl also has some lines in German, but conveniently those all get translated via humorous footnotes.

What does Karl have to do with the plot, though? He talks with Fafhrd for a bit and then fucks off. Well, his two-headed serpent does have an appetite for rats, so just keep that in mind…

Karl also very much acts as a red herring, and a pretty obvious one. On the morning after Fafhrd’s meeting with Karl, one of the fleet’s ships is discovered to have been sunk. Some suspect that Hisvet may have ordered rats to sink the ship, given her kinship with rats and a superstition that there may be a cult of hyper-intelligent rats—an accusation which Fafhrd and the Mouser, of course, try to rebuke. Hisvet claims that Karl and his two-headed serpent had sunk the ship, which is convenient but also not very convincing if you think about it. Up to this point Hisvet has been a somewhat passive character in the whole equation, but the Karl episode prompts her to take a more active (and more foreboding) role. It could be that something else had sunk the ship, or maybe Hisvet now acting so suspicious is a sign that she knows more about rats than she lets on.

One last thing I wanna mention before we get into the meaty spoilers is a walking bit of irony: a black cat that’s also on the Squid. There are sveeral scenes where Fafhrd tries to get along with the cat, only for it to bite/scratch him for his troubles. The cat (as is to be expected) also does not get along with rats at all, and his aversion to Hisvet is some heavy-handed foreshadowing that Hisvet is not all she claims to be. Yet the cat’s violent attitude toward Fafhrd also pushes him more in Hisvet’s direction, making him believe her more whereas otherwise he might be more skeptical. “‘I forswear all cats!’ Fafhrd cried angrily, dabbling at his chin. ‘Henceforth rats are my favorite beasties.’” And boy won’t he eat those words.

There Be Spoilers Here

An important lesson to take from this is that you should never ditch your buddy for a girlboss. Ya know, bros before hoes. Hisvet probably does have a soft spot for Fafhrd and the Mouser, but that doesn’t stop her from drugging them so that they’ll be out of the way while she starts working her magic with the white rats. Something funny about the rats is that we’re told they’re intelligent, but the twist is just how intelligent: they’re able to follow orders and wield tiny swords, with little hats to match! The leader of the white rats, and basically Hisvet’s second in command, is named Skwee, and isn’t that a cute name for a villain. It’s silly, undeniably, like something out of an old animated Disney film, but I’m pretty sure Leiber intended that silliness; I wouldn’t be surprised if he was thinking of Pinocchio or Peter Pan when he wrote “Scylla’s Daughter.” Some Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories have a creature feature feel about them and this is one such example.

Something that really jumped out at me in this story’s climax is the lesbianism, which is more than implied but less than said. What, lesbianism? In a magazine fantasy story from 1961? It’s more likely than you think! I’ve seen homosexuality get brought up in older magazine SFF, but not this directly or positively. To be more specific, not only are Hisvet and Frix in cahoots (not surprising), but they’re also all but said to be lovers (a little surprising), what with Hisvet not only kissing Frix, who then kisses Fafhrd (Hisvet kissing Fafhrd by proxy), but Hisvet admits later that men and women have fallen for her before and that she knows how devoted Frix is. Curiously, Leiber does not Bury Your Gays™, at least not here; once Karl shows up again and starts wreaking havoc on the rats, Hisvet and Frix hightail it off the Squid. Ya know what, good for them; I wonder what will happen to them in the novel version.

I suppose I have two issues with the ending: the first is that Karl appearing again reeks of deus ex machina, with Fafhrd and the Mouser actually doing very little to fight the rats, and the second is that even if I didn’t know about The Swords of Lankhmar I would’ve guessed we got a sequel to this. Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories typically read as standalones, but “Scylla’s Daughter” ends on a bit of a sequel hook, what with Hisvet and Frix getting away at the end, and we did sort of get a sequel in the form of expansion, but I prefer my stories in this series to be more tightly knit. This is gonna sound silly, but we could’ve also used more bromance between Fafhrd and the Mouser; these stories tend to be at their best when Our Anti-Heroes™ are working together, and in “Scylla’s Daughter” they’re usually not interacting with each other or they’re falling over each other’s dicks for Hisvet.

A Step Farther Out

It’s not what I would recommend as one’s first Fafhrd and Gray Mouser story, but “Scylla’s Daughter” has all the qualities of what I’d consider a good entry in the series: humor, terror, an engaging love interest, more than a touch of weirdness, and of course good swashbuckling adventure. What always brings me back to the Fafhrd and Gray Mouser series is not just Leiber’s borderline poetic and often lively prose, or even the thrills of the adventures themselves, but the overwhelming friendship between these two guys that keeps them together for decades, but in-story and throughout Leiber’s career. Not enough fiction, in my opinion, does platonic friendship between men well or convincingly (too often it reads as subliminally romantic), and yet Fafhrd and the Mouser stay consistent as the two best bros in Lankhmar. I cannot imagine these guys screwing each other or wanting to screw, although they would certainly go on double dates. I like this series a lot because even though Fafhrd and the Mouser get themselves into some shit, they always get out of it, and they always do that by sticking together.

See you next time.


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