A Book Ian Likes: Nifft The Lean by Michael Shea

Michael Shea came to prominence in the 1970s with his novel The Quest For Simbilis, a sequel of sorts to Jack Vance’s Dying Earth novel, The Eyes Of The Overworld. But despite much of his work – his brilliant short stories aside – displaying their roots very heavily on their sleeve he has a fantastic originality to his writing.

Nifft The Lean is such a book. It’s a collection of four novellas, framed by the device of a series of scholarly articles that read as an introduction as well as a eulogy by one of Nifft’s friends, the superbly named Shag Margold. Nifft, we soon discover, is a thief, a rogue and a scoundrel, albeit one with a heart of gold. Each of the four stories shows a different side to his skills as well as different aspects of the world that he lives in.

In the first story, Come Then, Mortal – We Will Seek Her Soul, Nifft is telling the story of one of his earlier exploits to his friend, Barnar the Chilite (who features in all the other stories). It’s a tale of how Nifft and a colleague were roped into a quest by the ghost of a dead woman who wants revenge on her still-living lover with whom she swore a suicide pact. It’s a fantastic tale of an Afterlife and an Underworld, with enough horrors to make Hieronymus Bosch go for a lie down and a warm milk. It’s written prosaically but with a dry wit which makes the horrors seen and experienced all the more terrifying and revolting.

The second story, The Pearls Of The Vampire Queen is a simple caper: Nifft and Barnar form a plan to swindle a vampire queen out of a fortune in pearls. Despite there being a strong supernatural element to the story, this is more a tale of a heist, reminding the reader of the adventures of Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and The Grey Mouser.

The third story is the absolute highlight of the book for me and worth reading on its own. It’s really a short novel (of the sort that Michael Moorcock used to write almost monthly in the 1960s) called The Fishing Of The Demon Sea and it begins with Nifft and Barnar facing execution for their crimes in an uninspiring little town near a vent into the nether regions. Conveniently they are reprieved at the last minute by the lord of the manor and given a task: rescue his son from the aforementioned nether regions. Reluctantly, the pair agree and begin a quest that is gripping and hilarious in equal measures: it’s a travelogue that Clark Ashton Smith would have been proud to write with ghouls and monsters that would warm the sub-cockle regions of H. P. Lovecraft’s heart. It’s a “there and back again” style quest and once the son is rescued the pair find that keeping him alive – or even wanting to – isn’t as easy as they may have thought.

The final story, The Goddess In Glass, is, in my not-so-humble-opinion, the weakest of the four stories: it’s more of a mystery/ quest with a more scientific than fantastic backdrop and relies less on heroics and swordplay than the other three. While Nifft and Barnar are definitely up to it, the logistics of the story often seem to overwhelm the rather gentle plot. However, your mileage may vary and it is as different from the other three tales as they were from each other, and it is interesting to see a more cerebral side to the titular character.

I came across this book during the explosion in popularity that fantasy as a genre was enjoying during the 1980s. The cover of my edition, possibly “inspired” by a publicity picture for the then-recent Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle Conan The Destroyer, fed all the hopes that my genre loving mind could cope with. Then, when I started reading it I realised that this was smarter than a lot of stuff I usually read, but it didn’t try to be “literary” smart or “grown-up” smart: it just kept your interest by being well-written and exciting rather than just one or neither of them. Plus, to Dungeons & Dragons-playing me, it was a world that effortlessly mixed the supernatural and the mundane without anyone querying it. Older me realised that this was a literary device that had been employed since the days of Homer, but younger me was having too much fun to really care about that.

As a whole, though, the book is a magnificent read and forms the first part of a series that Mr Shea would add to over the next couple of decades. If you’ve read and enjoyed any of the authors I’ve mentioned during the course of this perambulation down memory lane you may very well find something to enjoy here.

You can find out more about Michael Shea at https://www.michaelsheaauthor.com/

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