Nifft the Lean
by Michael Shea
1983 World Fantasy Award Winner for Best Novel
This is the first of these award winning novels where no hardcover edition exists. For everything else I could acquire a hard bound copy whether through book club editions or leather bound special editions; even the "signed and numbered limited edition" is only in paperback for Nifft the Lean.
I can't say I really blame publishers for that: this is not a very good book. Note that I did not say that it was not a very good novel. That is because despite winning an award for best novel it is an anthology of four separate novellas. At best they reach the level of enjoyable pulp but the problems with the stories becomes clear as repetition and boredom set in over the course of the book.
In each story Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser... oh, excuse me. In each story Nifft the Lean and his barbarian strongman companion journey to a new location where a new adventure where they can use their theiving skills presents itself. Over four novellas they rob a vampire queen, undermine a city a greedy merchants, and go to hell twice using different methods. Yes, Shea actually has two "descent into the underworld" stories in one volume.
My first major problem are the massive blocks of very out of place exposition that fill Nifft the Lean. There are long blocks of text between stories that read more like RPG sourcebook blocks than a a scholar relating details. That's annoying but the fourth novella has almost all of the plot related as exposition. Similar problems exist through the entire book, though, where characters tend to spend pages standing around spelling out unimportant details.
There were also multiple personal disappointments for me. The back cover of Nifft the Lean promised what was essentially the first (or third) novella with no mention of the rest of the book. While rewriting Dante's Inferno is something that has been done more times than I can count there's always room for a fresh spin on it (it does come from one of the most basic of human myths, after all). That was not what was in the book. Then the between story exposition made extensive comments about how each account, though told in a first person view, was by a different author. "Aha," I though, "this should make for an interesting spin on the story," expecting a slightly different tone and perspective on the next adventure. That was not the case; for the first three stories I could see no difference and in the fourth it changes to a third person perspective but tells nearly everything in large blocks of exposition.
Nifft himself is your standard fantasy light anti-hero filling out the stereotypical character checklist easily. It doesn't help that he and his partners (there's two in the course of the book but they're interchangible) are very clearly based on Leiber's own pulp adventurers. The characters, especially the secondary characters, are essentially plot devices that never convey anything more than the basic plot information. The consequence is that these people just aren't that interesting to read about.
The first novella is by far the best of them; it has the best structure, the best writing, and the quirks of the book have not fallen into annoying repetition yet. Still it never reaches above it's pulp fantasy roots and one sixty page novella from a three hundred page book is not a something I'd recommend.