Fritz Leiber is a favorite author. I was really impressed by his science fiction story The Wanderer; Conjure Wife is already a favorite fantasy book of ours. There is no doubt that he had seminal influence on many authors -- Roger Zelazny, and R.R. Martin has no doubt borrowed a lot of gravitas from this series of stories written over half a century. This story I had read before, in eighth grade -- originally entitled Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser -- but I only remembered one scene: where Fafhrd's betrothed Ice Woman is furious at him for being attracted to the visiting showgirl, Vlana.
In Conjure Wife, all women are secret witches who control their husbands' lives. In this book, the northern Ice Women are a domineering and sorcerous matriarchy, and in the more "civilized lands," women are utterly excluded from power and position. These stories were written in the forties, so I found myself searching for some indication that Leiber was making a statement about unfairness, cruelty, and the play of power between the sexes, rather than displaying overt sexism. There is evidence that this is indeed thoughtful commentary, overlaid as it is with a lively its "swords and sorcery" adventure.
I enjoyed this book, though I was not enthralled enough to continue reading more stories in the series-- just yet. What makes this a very nice read is , at 150 pages, it is not longer than it needed to be (I am wearying of overblown thousand page stories), the images and concepts often invoked a "I can't believe you went there," reaction, and amazing use of adjectives made the story pop ("Pawky" comes readily to mind.).
I have more appreciation for this story, too, because Chris and I visited Borderlands in San Francisco yesterday, which is a bookstore for science fiction, fantasy, horror, and mystery. I went through a half dozen books looking for a good read... and I can't believe how much poor, blocky, obvious-hit-the-numbers writing is out there. Are editors even aware of how powerfully books can evoke a reader these days? How books should be?
As an example, this paragraph:
"Mouse," the mage had said, firelight dancing on his short white beard, "when you stare your eyes like that and flare your nostrils, you are too much like a cat for me to credit you will ever be a sheepdog of the truth. You are a middling dutiful scholar, but secretly you favor swords over wands. You are more tempted by the hot lips of black magic than the chaste slim fingers of white, no matter to how pretty a misling the latter belong -- no, do not deny it! You are more drawn to the beguiling sinuosities of the left-hand path than the straight steep road of the right. I fear me you will never be mouse in the end but mouser. And never white but gray -- oh well, that's better than black. Now, wash up these bowls and go breathe an hour on the newborn ague-plant for 'tis a chill night, and remember to talk kindly to the thorn bush."
For writers, these lessons: even a muscular adventure story can have the sinews of thematic relevance, and should. And even a high fantasy story can have magical, take-your-breath away writing, and should.
And for more thoughts on Fritz Leiber's symbolism...