Adept's Gambit is Fritz Leiber's sixth published tale featuring Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. It was published in 1947, five years after the previous story, in an Arkham House collection of Leiber's work called Night's Black Agents. Agents was Leiber's first book; he would have been about 37. Adept's Gambit modernly appears as the 6th chapter in the third volume of the collected editions, Swords in the Mist. But just to further confuse things, Leiber passed an earlier version of Adept's Gambit to H.P. Lovecraft in 1936. That would make it the first, as far as we know, Fafhrd and Gray Mouser story written by Lieber, which explains some of its idiosyncrasies.
In fact, for once, I like what Leiber did to put this story in the canon when he reorganized the tales later. Basically, the story happens in a parallel universe to Newhon, a universe which the heroes reach by traveling through Ningauble's elaborate cave system.
When Leiber sent it to Lovecraft, the latter praised it in a sprawling letter. “Certainly, you have produced a remarkably fine & distinctive bit of cosmic fantasy … The result is an authentic work of art." He also suggested some minor revisions, including removing any references to The Elder Gods.
This early manuscript recently resurfaced and was published in a limited, collector's edition, complete with the full text of Lovecraft's letter. Those who have read it report that it differs radically from the one published in Night’s Black Agents.
I can’t imagine what it was like before, but to my thinking, the revision is meandering and goofy. And long!
Fafhrd's potential bedmates are all transforming into sows, literally, before he can really get going. The same is happening to the Mouse, though his partners are turned into snails instead. This occasions the duo's first visit to Ningauble of the Seven Eyes, who gives them a series of herculean quests that will lead to the lifting of the curse. (Uh. Their first visit when the stories are read in publication order, that is. Not their first visit in the re-ordered editions.)
The action starts in Tyre and the story mentions places like Persia, Greece, and Babylon; gods like Odin and Aprhodite; and even famous people like Socrates. All of these real-world references clash pretty hard with some of the more fantastic elements, such as Ningauble and his animated eyestalks. Though I did like Fafhrd shouting the oath, “Go spit down Fenris’ throat!”
Also, despite Lovecraft’s advice, there remain a number of references to The Elder Gods. These were probably an attempt by young Leiber to hitch his wagon to Lovecraft's Mythos cycle (as so many others did). I suspect that a lot of pulp authors on epistolary terms with Lovecraft viewed the Mythos gods as belonging to a shared universe. Even so, I don’t feel that Lieber’s use of them are in keeping with Lovecraft’s vision. He suggests that the Elder Gods interest themselves in the fates of men and hints at a tie between them and the main characters. That seems very un-Lovecraftian.
Finally, there is some troublesome sexism in the tale, mixed with some interesting gender swapping. Overall I wasn’t quite sure how to feel about the sexuality in the tale. Lieber did some interesting things with it, but ultimately the effect is spoiled by the more chauvinistic passages.
It was hard to give this one my full attention. Even though there were some good passages (the conversation with Ningauble, for instance), it generally tried my patience. I think my opinion of it would be higher, if it were a standalone tale by another author. For something written by Lieber, though, and a story within the matrix of Fafhd and Gray Mouser tales, it’s weak sauce.