Serial Review: Rime Isle by Fritz Leiber (Part 1/2)

(Cover by George Schelling. Cosmos, May 1977.)

Who Goes There?

The year was 1977. It was the year, depending on how you look at it, when science fiction either broke through into the mainstream or became forever relegated to a dancing bear, especially in cinema. (I’m talking about Star Wars here.) But it was a pretty good time to be Fritz Leiber! He had just won another Hugo and Nebula, this time for his alternate timeline short story “Catch That Zeppelin!,” which while not the most ambitious tale ever, showed Leiber to retain his humor and his tenderness well into his sixties. A lot of Leiber’s contemporaries can’t say the same for themselves. It was also during this year that Leiber’s final novel, Our Lady of Darkness, saw publication, and it was even serialized in a rather altered state in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction as The Pale Brown Thing. We also got one of the longest Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories with Rime Isle, the subject of today’s review, and unfortunately this would mark one of Leiber’s final appearances in the magazines, though he would continue to published in original anthologies and collections.

Placing Coordinates

Part 1 was published in the inaugural issue of Cosmos Science Fiction and Fantasy, which is on the Archive. Cosmos is just the sort of anomaly I would tackle for my blog, because it was short-lived (only four issues), nobody remembers it, and yet a few of us probably should. Edited by a young David G. Hartwell and sporting a fancy letter-size format with massive detailed interior illustrations, Cosmos was unfortunately another casualty of the ’70s wave of new SFF magazines, only some of which survived past infancy (Asimov’s and Omni being the big success stories, of course), and on top of that it was another argument for why a letter-size SFF magazine is unsustainable. Personally I don’t see it as a big loss. I was actually dreading reading Rime Isle, not because of the story itself but because the letter-size format is not as accessible as digest or even pulp; the type is not only three-columned but is fucking TINY. Not only do my eyes strain but having to lean in constantly makes my scoliosis act up. I suppose it might be better if I were to read a print copy and not a PDF, but I can’t imagine it’s much of an improvement.

Rime Isle is not one of the more famous Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories, but it’s still part of that series, and as I’ll later explain it feels like a focal point in the series continuity, which means it’s been reprinted a fair number of times. It hasn’t ever been anthologized really as far as I can tell, but it’s been collected a couple times, namely in Swords and Ice Magic and the omnibus collection The Second Book of Lankhmar; the former is available in paperback and ebook (from Open Road Media, AAAAAAAGH) while the latter is an affordable hardcover from Gollancz / Orion.

Enhancing Image

This is a late Fafhrd and Gray Mouser story, both in publication order and in internal chronology; the boys have been at it for a long time now. At the beginning we find Our Anti-Heroes™ leaders of their own ships, landing in Rime Isle after an off-screen battle with Sea-Mingols and ready to collect what’s owed them. The problem is that none of the people who greet Fafhrd and the Mouser seem aware that the two had pushed back a pirate invasion, or that they had even been hired by the island’s government. Things get even weirder when Afreyt and Cif, two members of said government and the ones who had contacted Fafhrd and the Mouser in the first place, deny their involvement in front of everyone. So no payment and no acknowledgment of the job which has been performed.

Like with “Scylla’s Daughter” (review here), we’re outside the confines of Lankhmar, but with Rime Isle we’re at least on land for most of it. Rime Isle itself is a curious setting, being an isolated survival-of-the-fittest society in which the people are generally hard workers, tenacious, and perhaps most unusually, atheistic. Like vocally atheists. Like Richard Dawkins would be proud of these people if not for their seeming lack of interest in high culture. Keep in mind also that in the world of Nehwon there are, like, a lot of supernatural beings about? Ghouls and monsters and even demigods, not to mention beings from quite literally other universes. I’m saying that being an atheist in the world of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser would be like being an atheist in Star Trek, given how many aliens in the franchise are basically akin to gods; you probably wouldn’t belive in the Abrahamic God, but you’d probably bet your life on something awesome like that.

The conflict thus comes not entirely from the villain of the week (although there is a villain of the week, we’ll get to him in a second), but from the people Our Anti-Heroes™ are supposed to be helping. You have Rime Isle, which unbeknownst to the people in it is currently a sparkle in the eye of a demon, Khahkht, who plots to use the people’s skepticism against them. The problem also is that nobody fucking believes that Fafhrd and the Mouser, along with their ships full of berserkers and thieves respectively, are here to do good, and Afreyt and Cif aren’t helping—at least not in public. As it turns out the council that governs the island wasn’t even aware of Fafhrd and the Mouser being involved; it was a call made only by the two ladies. As such, things are a little awkward right now, and it would be a real shame if perhaps a horde of Sea-Mingols were to invade…

In “Scylla’s Daughter” we got a pretty memorable girlboss, but with Rime Isle we get two girlbosses for the price of one, only this time they seem to be actually benevolent. The Fafhrd and Gray Mouser series has seen a lot of women come through over the years, often in the form of love interests, and I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say Afreyt and Cif are being set up as the new love interests of the week; their being paired repeatedly with Fafhrd and the Mouser repeatedly indicates this. However, what makes them different from some previous love interests is that they’re shown to be equals with their partners. Afreyt and Cif are capable councilwomen and good leaders, although they got themselves into a bit of a predicament prior to the story’s beginning. As far as old-timey SFF authors go I would say Leiber is better than most with regards to the misogyny issue, easily surpassing Heinlein and Asimov but maybe being a step below H. Beam Piper in the writing women department. At least so far Rime Isle sees Leiber on good behavior with how he writes his female leads.

Khahkht is less enticing. Not that the Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories are known for their villains, but I almost wish Khahkht wasn’t here, not that that would make much of a difference to the rest of the cast, since they don’t interact in Part 1 and as far as the Rime Islers (Rime islanders?) are aware he doesn’t exist. Khahkht exists so that Fafhrd and the Mouser can be split up partway through the story and sent on separate quests; it’s like Leiber knows that Our Anti-Heroes™ are at their best when together so he conspires to keep them apart half the time. It could also explain why “Stardock” remains my favorite entry in the series, where it’s about comradery and brotherhood from start to finish, invisible mountainwomen aside.

Speaking of which…

There Be Spoilers Here

The climactic action is not the big spoiler here, but something else that gives Rime Isle its own eccentricity, which is the intorduction of gods from other worlds—specifically a version of our world where the Nordic gods were real. In “Scylla’s Daughter” (and later The Swords of Lankhmar, the “canon” novel-length expansion) we met Karl Treuherz, an explorer atop a two-headed serpent who has been hopping across different universes; if that sounds like a lot, it is. Karl even gets namedropped here, and this is to set a precedent for how the fuck it is that Odin and Loki (yes, those two) have found their way into Nehwon, albeit in pretty bad shape. Afreyt takes care of Odin while Cif takes care of Loki, and these gods right now are transparent and practically bedriiden, on the brink of nonexistence. The explanation we’re given is that gods cease to exist once nobody believes in them anymore, and this even applies to gods within Nehwon.

It takes several volumes to compile the Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories, but this series is not a singular epic like The Lord of the Rings—rather it’s greater than the sum of its parts. When Fafhrd and the Mouser aren’t slumming in Lankhmar they’re adventuring abroad, which gives Our Anti-Heroes™ a lot of chances to meet with foreign cultures and peoples, and Leiber usually has fun concocting these new lands. Rime Isle is an island full of hard-knuckled people who used to worship gods but have not apparently lost their faith, and the only thing keeping Odin and Loki alive is the single worshipper each of them has—that Afreyt and Cif are the only ones keeping them from oblivion, and they’ll need that worship too because having a couple gods (even weak ones) on your side can be pretty useful. My main issues with the first installment of Rime Isle are that a) we get barely a word out of Odin and Loki, which is disappointing, and b) the action is underwhelming, not helped by Cosmos having such borderline illegible type.

A Step Farther Out

This is very much not what I would recommend as one’s first Fafhrd and Gray Mouser story; your mileage will vary depending on how familiar you already are with the series. Most of the stories I’ve read so far have no hinged on continuity so much, but Rime Isle, while it’s still compehensible even without any prior knowledge, rewards you if you know about some of the weirder stuff to happen to our barbarian-thief duo, especially “Scylla’s Daughter” or The Swords of Lankhmar. Similarly to that earlier entry it also takes advantage of what had by the ’70s become pretty lax censorship in the magazines, although nothing too raunchy happens (so far, anyway). A criticism that can sometimes be tossed at Leiber’s writing is that he can dip his toes in misogyny, and while the lechery of the elder gods may be uncomfortable to some, the leading ladies of Rime Isle (the setting, but also the serial) are definitely Women Who Do Stuff™. Afreyt and Cif are intelligent women who are clearly written as Fafhrd and the Mouser’s equals, and who for much of Part 1 are in more control of the situation than Our Anti-Heroes™. Love interests of the week? Maybe, but also possibly something more than that.

Much of Part 1 is setup, admittedly. Khahkht is mostly talk, and ultimately the collective skepticism of Rime Isle’s people may prove just as much a threat to the island as Khahkht’s horde. Not that the premise of old gods “dying” if they lose faith was new, even at the time, but I wonder if Neil Gaiman had read some Fafhrd and Gray Mouser before writing American Gods? Wouldn’t be too surprising.

See you next time.


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