Friday, February 26, 2010

Michael Shea: Nifft the Lean, Pt. 2

See previous post for introduction and discussion of the First Adventure.

Warning: I will discuss significant events and endings.

Second Adventure:

"The Pearls of the Vampire Queen"

In his usual pedantic and fussy manner, Shag Margold tells us that this tale came to him from Ellen Errin (also known as Greymalkin Mary), Nifft's long time friend and lover. At the end of the introduction, Margold poses an ethical question that has long bothered him: is the rule of the Vulvula, the Vampire Queen worse than that of the Hipparch, the cruel ruler of Gelidor, whose main export is weapons of war, and who is also suspected of fomenting conflicts. Or, to put it Margold's words: "Who drinks more blood--the Hipparch or Queen Vulvula?"

Briefly, Nifft and Barnar are broke. They decide to improve their financial status by favoring the country of Fregor Ingens with a visit. Fregor Ingens is the only known source of the rare black pearls, much favored by the rich and powerful, and they decide to do a little free-lance pearl diving of their own. The pearl trade, of course, is strictly controlled by the government, so their first concern is to avoid being spotted. Diving for the pearls is usually handled by a team of three people. Two are needed to grab the tentacles of the plant (it's a flesh-eater, naturally), and third to grab pearls. However, two can do it if one is extremely strong (Barnar) and one extremely fast and nimble (Nifft). The thought of hiring on as legitimate pearl divers never occurs to Nifft and Barnar.

The work is hard and dangerous, and their hoard grows slowly. On learning of the festival that's being held in the capital city, Nifft decides that there's an easier way of becoming rich, although it's even more dangerous. The festival is the annual festival of renewal for the Queen. For one year, a young male is given all that he desired. Whatever he wanted, he was given. At the end of his year's "reign," the Queen would drain him of all of his blood. This will restore her strength and her youth and allow her to live another year, slowly aging, until the next festival.

This is reminiscent of certain spring festivals held many centuries ago here on Earth in which certain individuals were treated "royally" for a specified length of time, frequently a year, and then sacrificed to the gods to ensure a good harvest. It's also a reminder of the old tradition that the ruler was identified with the land and the land with the ruler. A healthy ruler insured a healthy land. In the Arthurian Quest for the Holy Grail, Percival encounters a wounded king whose affliction mirrors his kingdom, which has been described in some accounts as the Wasteland.

There was a condition though: she needed to drain every last drop of his blood, or the restoration would not be complete. At the next festival, therefore, she would again be restored, but she would have aged a bit that corresponded to the amount of his blood that she didn't consume. Nifft's plan was simple: steal a cup of blood and hold it for ransom.

It all works out as planned, except for one minor detail. They decide to make their escape on the back of a basilicus, a flying beast that is too stupid to be considered a true demon, but it is controllable. It was commonly thought to be the fastest flying critter on the planet, but Nifft and Barnar soon discovered "that there is something faster than a basilicus." They never learned its name, but its description sounded like a gigantic praying mantis to me. While it cost them part of the ransom, this turned out to be a highly successful trip.

Third Adventure:

"The Fishing of the Demon-Sea"

According to Shag Morgold, this tale is told by Nifft himself, in his own hand. Margold provides the reader with a brief history of Kairnheim, the location of this adventure.

Nifft and Barnar have arrived in Kine Gather, a city in Karnheim, with thoughts of improving their financial status. Before they get a chance to do much more than look over the town, they are arrested and found guilty of thievery when "evidence" is found that proves they have committed at least one theft. Seconds before they are to be executed, a herald bursts onto the scene ordering them to halt the execution. Nifft immediately recognizes the situation. They were set up in order to persuade them to undertake a perilous task, one so dangerous that only those facing imminent death would agree to it.

The son of one of the most powerful men in Kine Gather has been kidnapped by a demon. Actually it's his fault. He's a perfect example of the oft-quoted line--"a little learning is a dangerous thing"--especially when accompanied by stupidity and an irrational belief in one's superior powers and in one's immortality. Such is Wimfort, the son of Rod-Master Kamin. Unfortunately, he managed to correctly perform a summoning spell for demons, but, even more unfortunately, he didn't do as well with the spell of protection. Wimfort summoned the demon, who promptly grabbed him and returned home, to the Demon-Sea.

Nifft and Barnar's task is easy: go down to the Demon-Sea and rescue the Rod-Master's son. To prevent them from just taking off for parts unknown when given the chance, a magic spell is placed on them that causes pain even when only thinking of doing anything but rescuing the Rod-Master's pride and joy.

After numerous painful and bloody encounters they finally manage to rescue Kamin's P and J. Wimfort's gratitude is overwhelming:

" 'My father sent you . . .' echoed the boy. I [Nifft] was getting alarmed--his stare was so wide. 'Three months here!' he groaned. 'Three months. And my father sent you. He waited two months, and then sent a pair of baboons on foot who took another two months to get here!' His voice was rising to a howl as uncontrolled as his arithmetic was getting. "A good wizard could have had me out in a day! That dung-heap! That greedy, stingy dung-heap! THREE MONTHS!'"

The trip back was worse than the trip there. In addition to the other dangers, they now had to protect Wimfort who seemed determined to kill himself and his rescuers. It wasn't long before I decided that he should have been left there as he provides strong evidence in support of Robert A. Heinlein's theory of child raising. According to RAH, the child, after birth, should be placed in a barrel and fed through the bunghole. Once it reaches puberty, close the bunghole.

Fourth and Final Adventure:

"The Goddess in Glass"

This tale is quite different from the first three. Nifft appears to be a bystander, although he has worked himself into becoming a member of the priestess's inner circle of advisers. What he does behind the scenes, if anything, can only be guessed at.

Shag Margold had asked Nifft if he would stop at Anvil Pastures, a city whose main export is weaponry, to get some information about its chief religious cult. The divinity appears to be dead, but it is known to somehow transmit information to its priestess or oracle. Margold is doing a treatise on this cult and lacks certain information.

Nifft agrees and travels to Anvil Pastures, which he finds in turmoil. Months ago, the goddess/ alien? who may be dead or hibernating, asked, through the priestess/oracle, Dame Lybis, that the town gather up a herd of certain animals which had recently emerged from underground and bring them to the vicinity of the town. As Nifft soon learns, the town generally responds to such requests only if there's a profit to be made. As this would be expensive and unprofitable, the town's leaders ignored the request.

Shortly afterwards, the goddess provided information about a source of ore for weapons that was unknown to the town at this time. This time the leaders listened, and the ore was found to be a superior material for weapons. Prosperity was at hand. Months later, however, mining of the nearby mountain range had caused a shifting of large quantities of rock, much of which was now poised to come crashing down on the town. An appeal to the goddess produced a solution: bring the herd of animals from its present location to the town, as it had requested months ago.

The townspeople did and then went to the goddess. The oracle brought the following message: the goddess was pleased, but now a new problem had occurred, for which the goddess had a solution. The townspeople had no choice but to comply. This pattern repeats--as each problem is solved, a new one appears. At one point, the herd of animals that the goddess wanted brought to the vicinity became a threat to the town. They were lithovores--rock eaters--and were working their way towards town. The goddess suggested that all the gold in town be melted down into sheets and placed against a ridge that was between the lithovores and the town. Lithovores didn't eat gold. Hmmmm...

Frankly this sounds a lot like a scam to me, especially since Nifft is now one of Dame Lybis' advisors, or perhaps there's a closer, more intimate relationship?

The resolution soon becomes obvious: the townspeople are going to be punished for their sins. Of course, it isn't clear as to which sins in particular they are being punished for, but their punishment is inevitable.

I had read this book many years ago, so long ago I can't remember why, for I normally don't read this type. However, it stayed with me, and I decided to read it again. It was only during the second reading that I began to see just what Shea has worked into his stories. And, I suspect I've picked up
only a few of the echoes of literature and ancient traditions that are present.

Overall Rating: Highly recommended.

I forgot to mention that Michael Shea went on to write two novels featuring Nifft the Lean.

The second book in the series is The Mines of Behemoth, again with Barnar Hammer-Hand. The third is A'rak. Barnar isn't in this one.

I haven't read either of them, but I do have both in my long queue. I think I'll move them up a bit.


  1. Dear Fred,

    I love Nifft the Lean--at its very best it is reminiscent of Clark Ashton Smith and some of Jack Vance (I'm think _Eyes of the Overworld_) here. Thank you for the appreciation.



  2. Steven,

    You are welcome. It's surprising what Shea has put into this work.

    Someone (perhaps you?) told me that Shea had written the authorized sequel to Vance's _Eyes of the Overworld_.