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

(Cover by Vincent Di Fate. Cosmos, July 1977.)

Who Goes There?

But the time Rime Isle was serialized in the newfangled (and very short-lived) Cosmos Science Fiction and Fantasy, both Fritz Leiber and his Fafhrd and Gray Mouser series had been in the game for almost forty years. Despite that length of time, there had been only one Fafhrd and Gray Mouser novel, with the series being mostly relegated to short stories and novellas. Rime Isle is one of the longest entries in the series, and in 1977 it had a few options for publication. It could’ve gone to F&SF, but Leiber’s The Pale Brown Thing (an abridged version of Our Lady of Darkness) was being serialized that same year, and anyway, F&SF doesn’t run serials often. There was also Fantastic, which under Ted White was by far the biggest outlet for sword and sorcery among the magazines, but Fantastic also didn’t pay very well. Then there was Cosmos, one of the new kids on the block, edited by David G. Hartwell and appearing in a fancy letter-size format, like if F&SF had way bigger pages (and less legible type) and actually had interior illustrations.

1977 saw not one but TWO serials from Leiber, and in hindsight I picked the wrong one to review. Sure, Rime Isle is a fine choice for a second Fafhrd and Gray Mouser story to cover (at least it’s not the first or else it’d be incomprehensible), but I ran into a couple issues, one of which doesn’t have to do with the writing. The first problem is that Cosmos reads terribly as a PDF and I suspect it’d still read badly if I had a physical copy in my hands. I’m amazed that Omni lasted as long as it did and had such a large readership because this triple- (or in the case of Omni quadruple-) column formatting is barely fucking readable; the type is microscopic, there are too many typos and weird typographical choices, and as a PDF it’s nothing but a pain to scroll through. So yeah, painful to read, which partly why I wasn’t able to get a lot out of it (or Part 1, for that matter), but as for the other issue? Well…

Placing Coordinates

Part 2 was published in the July 1977 issue of Cosmos, which is on the Archive. Did you know that there are multiple SFF magazines named Cosmos? Actually makes it a bit of a pain to look up; at the same time it’s not surprising because it’s just the kind of name you’d see for one of the seemingly infinite magazines put out in the ’50s, which did indeed see an incarnation of Cosmos—just not this one. While it is a late entry in the series and in my opinion not one of the better ones, Rime Isle is still a Fafhrd and Gray Mouser story and therefore it’s very much been collected. You can find a fresh copy of the collection Swords and Ice Magic in paperback, as well as ebook, but beware that both are from Open Road Media, which may well be the Darth Vader (or at least the Darth Maul) of SFF ebook publication. Oh the authors I like whose recent paperback editions have been mediocre outings from this one company! But moving on!

Enhancing Image

With the people of Rime Isle mostly being of no help, Fafhrd and the Mouser have to deal not only with the machinations of Khahkhk and his Mingols, but two refugee gods with Odin and Loki. Yes, those guys, in case you forgot. Afreyt and Cif, two members of the island’s council, take in these gods from another world, and by the end of Part 1 a warrant has been made for their (the ladies’) arrest. Now our favorite barbarian-thief duo have to command their ships, keep their ladies safe, and figure out how to beat the Mingols without also succumbing to the tricks of Odin and Loki, especially the latter (not surprising to us but definitely a shock to the characters). We get swashbuckling thrills, some hallucinogenic erotic (though nothing too raunchy) episodes, and a couple of lecherous old gods!

I honestly do recommend reading all this in book form, because it has to be an upgrade from its magazine publication. Sure the interiors (courtesy of Freff and Jack Gaughan) are nice enough, they’re not worth the tiny text or how many typos litter said text, inclusing some printing quirks like some letters consistently getting replaced with other letters; it’d bn likn if I rnplacnd nvnry e with an n for a whole paragraph, it’d get annoying. But that’s only half of it, because while I always enjoy reading reading tales of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, I’m more here for the quippy dialogue and humor than the action, and not only is Rime Isle heavy with action, it’s not all too clearly written. Since Fafhrd and the Mouser are separated for most of it and there are two action sets working in tandem, the perspective keeps flipping between Our Anti-Heroes™ and it can be sometimes hard to tell who is who. There is an also an unusually high number of side characters, many of whom only serve to give the action a sense of scale and to remind us that Fafhrd and the Mouser each commands a ship of scoundrels.

What I’m saying is that if I was ever to reread Rime Isle, it’d be as part of Swords and Ice Magic, where at least it’d be more readable; but I also think of the series that I’ve read so far it’s the most cluttered and impenetrable entry. Heavens forbid this be your first tango with the series, because there are continuity references that I did not expect and which will almost certainly confuse people who are not already familiar with said continuity. If you’ve never read “Stardock,” for instance, you’ll be wondering what the big deal with a certain subplot and a certain character is, and if you’ve never read “Ill Met in Lankhmar” then you’d probably think Fafhrd and the Mouser are just haughty misogynists who don’t like getting “attached” to women because they’re too manly for that sort of thing. The truth is that Fafhrd and the Mouser are reluctant to commit because of a tragic thing which happened to them in “Ill Met in Lankhmar,” the story where they first met (although it’s one of the later entries in the series to be written), and without at least that and “Stardock” this serial would be nigh-incomprehensible.

Hell, even if you’ve read the aforementioned stories, not to mention The Swords of Lankhmar, you might find Rime Isle‘s reliance on callbacks to be too demanding and to take too much away from what this serial does well, namely the maturity of the non-action scenes and how active the female characters are in the plot. The Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories tend to feel like a treehouse club just for boys, but Rime Isle is at its best when it’s at its most egalitarian, which is not that unusual for Leiber but is certainly a bit so for the series.

Placing Coordinates

Yes the day is saved, but it’s not quite that simple. For one, Fafhrd loses his LEFT HAND. Like that shit is gone, and it’s bloody too, possibly the most violent moment in the whole serial, made more so because of how sudden it is. In typical Fafhrd and Gray Mouser fashion the ending is not entirely happy, with Afreyt and Cif still being on uneasy terms with the rest of Rime Isle’s government. There is, however, room for hope. Unusually for an entry in this series, Fafhrd and the Mouser don’t fuck off and head out for another potential adventure at the end. I’m not sure exactly when the series continuity “ends,” or what would be the end point in the series chronology, but I have to think Rime Isle comes pretty close. Sure, the main villain eats shit, Odin and Loki get disposed of (being just as much curses as assets), and it seems like Fafhrd and the Mouser get their girls of the week, but there’s no catch as far as I can tell. What adventures can these two have from here on out? Especially given their new positions of leadership and the fact that they’re not two lone wolves working together anymore; it’s like the boys have been dragged kicking and screaming into real maturity.

I know, not much of a review this time, sorry. Merry fucking Christmas (two days late).

A Step Farther Out

Am I done yet? I’m almost done with my Leiber tribute month, and honestly I’ve started to feel burnt out. Maybe this wasn’t the best idea, although I still very much like the sentiment of it, not to mention that Leiber has a lot of certified hits and even more hidden or forgotten gems under his belt. When you write for half a century you’ll probably start coasting after the twenty-year mark, but Leiber didn’t do that, and in fairness to Rime Isle it feels like the work of someone who, while he’s deep enough into his career to become a legacy figure, has enough talent and consciousness to reflect on said legacy and even respond to it. The playful misogyny of some earlier Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories gets skewered here, with victory being out of reach if not for the ingenuity of the leading ladies. Fafhrd and the Mouser are also a bit more mature at this point, and there’s the implication that our boys (who are about middle-aged at this point) will settle down and not get as caught up in their need for masculine heroism. It might be one of my least favorite entries in the series based on execution, but Rime Isle shows that Leiber, even at this point, would not go gently into the night.

See you next time.

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