The Snow Women
by Fritz Leiber

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson
Fantastic, April 1970

collected in —
Swords and Deviltry

Ill Met in Lankhmar March 2007

Entertainment in the cold

"The Snow Women" is the chronologically first story in Fritz Leiber's great fantasy series, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. As the series matured, Leiber backtracked and gave the two demi-heroes separate introductions, and this novella is Fafhrd's. (His name sounds like foffered.) Fafhrd is a northern barbarian of the Snow Clan in the Cold Waste, and in this story his youth and isolation reach a climax.

... what the Snow Women hated so venomously and which each year caused them to wage cold war with hardly any material or magical holds barred, was the theatrical show which inevitably came shivering north with the traders, its daring troupers with faces chapped and legs chilblained, but hearts a-beat for soft northern gold and easy if rampageous audiences — a show so blasphemous and obscene that the men preempted Godshall for its performance (God being unshockable) and refused to let the women and youths view it ....

The story is quite entertaining and suspenseful in itself, fine sword-and-sorcery, with solid fighting and magical effects in its clear, cold setting. There are also nicely delineated characters, some conniving and inimical; and hints of the distant city of Lankhmar and other exotica.

Yet "The Snow Women" is not quite representative of the series, because the Gray Mouser does not appear until his own solo introduction in the following story, "The Unholy Grail" — which has less adventure but an even darker magic. In the third story, the classic "Ill Met in Lankhmar", we first meet the distinctive combination of the two companions together. A truly memorable team.

So the first point I want to urge is to read no less than on through "Ill Met in Lankhmar" to give you a proper taste of the Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories. Or start with that third story or a later story, even; reading them in sequence is not all that critical. Very like James H. Schmitz's novelet "Novice" — the first of the Telzey Amberdon series — "The Snow Women" is only a tantalizing tuning-up, not a full overture.

Artistry in the snow

A second point is that these are all rich stories. Fritz Leiber worked on this series on and off for most of his life, rather like Goethe returning to and enriching Faust. John W. Campbell published the first-written of these stories in Unknown in 1939, and there was much more to come.

Even in "The Snow Women" there are echoes forward, hints and premonitions. A great part of the fun is noticing Leiber's little details, often mere background bits but which tie the multi-book series into a sprawling but living and breathing whole.

Thus the Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories are worth reading slowly if you can; and should be kept for rereading. Soak in the detail; Leiber is an excellent writer, thoughtful and multifaceted; and sometimes the fast pace of adventure can sweep us past many small but tasty felicities. As with James Schmitz, we can savor and appreciate these virtues by slowing our reading, and rereading.

As the almost imperceptible shadows lengthened and the mist-wreathed air grew dark, the omnipresent crystals seemed to be growing even a little more swiftly. The palaver at the trading tents, which the thick snowy tongue of the forest shut off from the home tents, grew softer-voiced, then ceased. The unending low chant from the Women's Tent became more noticeable, and also higher pitched. An evening breeze came from the north, making all the crystals tinkle.

The chanting grew gruffer and the breeze and the tinkling ceased, as if on command. The mist came wreathing back from east and west, and the crystals were growing again. The women's chanting faded to a murmur. All of Cold Corner grew tautly and expectantly silent with the approach of night.

Day ran away over the ice-fanged horizon, as if she were afraid of the dark.


© 2007 Robert Wilfred Franson

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