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Ill Met in Lankhmar by Fritz Leiber, with an introduction by Michael Moorcock (Orion Millennium, £6.99, 450 pages, paperback; omnibus edition of the first two novels in the Swords series; published 18 March 1999.)

No search, not even through the smallest of the small print in this excellent book (a collection of interconnected stories and novellas) will tell the reader that this work is not new. There is nothing to suggest that the component parts have appeared before. If you happen to know that Leiber died in 1992 (he was born in 1910), then fair enough; but this edition makes no reference to the fact that the first part, Swords and Deviltry, appeared in 1970, or that the second part, Swords Against Death, appeared in the same year, but as a revamped version of the 1957 collection, Two Sought Adventure. (By 1970, a fantasy boom was well underway, and the novella Ill Met in Lankhmar won a Hugo.)

Why should any reader be expected to guess? And what is the desired effect anyway? For a reader to think, Ah, yes, so here he is, another fresh-faced young whippersnapper, with a world to sell and all the time in it to do so? Nonsense. If publishers can't be truthful to the audience to whom they hope to sell the product, then what hope is there for genre publishing?

Leiber, it seems, is being punted as a new writer. And this is horrible. Insidious. Three further Lankhmar volumes are forthcoming from Millennium, and unless some material has been unearthed for posthumous publication, these books will also be of reprinted work. What's wrong with that? Fritz Leiber is dead, and for all his faults (literary or otherwise: his flair for spending money on drink springs to mind as an example of the latter category), he should be entitled to the dignity of a place in the fantasy archive.

Rest in peace, Fritz Leiber, and thanks for the developments you ushered through... In addition to his great body of genre work, some of which was thought to have been ahead of its time, Leiber was the guy who coined the phrase "Sword-and-Sorcery" (in 1960, to describe Robert E Howard's Conan the Barbarian) - although Leiber should not, of course, be blamed for writing any of the bollocks that was often associated with it.

He wrote, at all times - from his apprenticeship working for Unknown magazine in the late 30s, to the end - with a strong vein of romance, irony and humour, even when he was working in the area of the supernatural: with Conjure Wife, or You're All Alone. In his early work, he was influenced by ER Eddison and James Branch Cabell. He thought his own characters, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser (here highlighted) were antidotes to the saccharine qualities of Tolkein's creations; and Ill Met in Lankhmar describes how this "pair of lone-wolf Robin Hoods" (Leiber's words, printed elsewhere) meet.

Fafhrd, at the beginning of the volume is a young, slightly arrogant, man who is keen to explore; to go to "that putrid festering of the hot south, where there is no natural stern cold to punish the foolish and luxurious and to see that the decencies are kept", as his mother would have it. They live in a snowy part of Nehwon (read it backwards), and have been visited by a pack of roving performers, to one of whom Fafhrd has taken a shine. This woman is not so popular with other people, however, and Fafhrd discovers a plot that revolves around her maltreatment; the man wants to help her, but will she let him?

Later, there is an account of how the other reprobate in the partnership became the Gray Mouser. When they meet, it is as if something shifts in the fundament of the fantastic: because even now, three decades on, Leiber is streets and mountains ahead of much of his contemporary competition. He writes a better sentence; he hovers over a better argument. His sex scenes are sexy; his cities (and Leiber was a man in love with the urban, as the more horrific side of his oeuvre might confirm) are bustling with roustabouts and vagabonds. When he does the countryside, he uses - and this has been acknowledged - certain pre-existing sources, in order to make the landscape seem more familiar. Leiber shied away from the idea of making fantasy too far away for the reader.

Think of what you most love about fantasy; then see if you can't find it in this book, and those that are to follow over the next few years. The characters are great, they are human even when they are not so; and the tone is strictly tongue-in-cheek for the duration. Indeed, it is often possible to imagine the author on the brink of laughter himself, but being able to reign it all in. This book is witty and incandescent; it should be on every shelf. Leiber might be in a better place, but his stories have found a new home for the new Millennium.

Review by David Mathew.

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© David Mathew 19 June 1999