Wagner’s second selection for Echoes of Valor is a sword and sorcery tale from Fritz Leiber (1910-1992), the first written, but not published, Fafhrd and Gray Mouser story “Adept’s Gambit.”
Before the Fafhrd and Mouser stories were published, starting in the August 1939 issue of Uncanny, Leiber had been sending these stories around to his circle of friends. One of those friends happened to be H. P. Lovecraft who Wagner quotes as saying “Someday I hope the Fafhrd cycle will get into print, leading off with Adept’s Gambit.”
However, “Adept’s Gambit” wasn’t the first to be published. It eventually saw the light of day in an Arkham House collection of short stories by Leiber titled Night’s Black Agents —published in 1947. Wagner explains that this book became rare and the story wasn’t widely available to readers until 1969 when it was collected in the narratively chronologically ordered Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories– Volume 3 Swords in the Mist. Leiber, in order to have his cycle of stories fit together seamlessly, did some re-writes. Being an earlier story, “Adept’s Gambit” is set in our historical world rather than the world of Nehwon that Leiber would ultimately create.
In Swords in the Mist Leiber adds a connecting story “The Wrong Branch.” In that story, the Gray Mouser takes a left instead of a right down one of the tunnels of the multi-dimensional lair of Ninegauble (their multi-eyed patron). Taking this ‘wrong branch’ leads the duo to our world, the magic alters their speech and memories so it’s as if they have always lived here. At the end of “Adept’s Gambit” in the new version included in Swords in the Mist, the worlds blend and our world slips away like a dream leaving them back in Nehwon. The version that Wagner included in Echoes of Valor is the 1947 definitive text unearthed for our reading pleasure.
Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser get caught up in a power struggle between a woman, her brother (a magical adept), and his master. The whole reason the duo gets involved is that whenever Fafhrd and the Mouser kiss a woman she turns into a hog or a snail respectively. They set out on a quest to quell this ailment and realize they are being treated like pawns in a game.
This story is not one of the strongest Fafrhd and Gray Mouser stories, probably due to the fact that it was one of the first written. The banter between the duo is always fun and probably my favorite part of Leiber’s swordsmen. With a dictionary in hand, I was able to greatly enjoy those sections of the story. Leiber has wonderful swordplay in his later stories however in this particular one I was confused what was happening at certain moments. I’ve seen this story get criticism, for the story the woman reveals about her past and how this slows down the action and is not needed. I enjoyed getting to hear her story, but I will agree with those critics that it was a big tonal shift. What I especially enjoyed about that section was the breaks in her story for Leiber to describe what the travelers were currently doing. It was an interesting experiment in telling two progressing stories, past and present, in a parallel way.
Leafing through the two editions-1947 and 1969-I couldn’t spot many differences. It’s nice to have the clean definitive text easily readable again, but definitely not crucial. Looking at the first two stories in Echoes of Valor, I can detect a motivating force for Wagner being the preservation and rediscovery of fading or lost classics. Not only do I admire this, but it motivates me to keep Wagner’s own stories from fading away or being lost.