Hell And Back Again: Michael Shea’s Nifft The Lean
Michael Shea’s Nifft The Lean was originally published in 1982, and it won the World Fantasy Award for best novel in 1983. I remember reading it sometime in the 1980s (my 20s) and being amazed by the world building and the striking blend of horror and fantasy. Recently I revisited the novel as an audiobook read by John Morgan, who does an outstanding job. I have been unable to locate a currently published text book, either physical or electronic, although used copies seem to be fairly common.
As an aside, I have migraines and it is often difficult and painful for me to read text, so the majority of my pleasure reading is now via audiobook. I have found that a number of books which are out of print and have not been transferred to e-books are available on audio—I suspect that’s because it’s simpler to transfer an existing audiobook on CD to a downloadable file than to scan a paper book to make an e-book. So if you are hankering to find a particular classic, try searching Audible.com. But listen to the sample file before you download—some readers don’t do the work justice, and the sound quality of older files is not always good.
Back to Nifft The Lean. This book is told in four distinct parts, but I consider it to be five stories. The framing narrative is itself one of my favorite parts of the book.
Shag Margold is a cartographer and historian who supplements his own researches by collecting traveler’s tales from more adventurous types. One of these is Nifft, thief, mercenary, and general swashbuckler for hire. Over the course of his career, Nifft entrusted several of his notebooks to Shag, and it is from these sources that Shag relates Nifft’s adventures.
The book opens with Shag’s eulogy for Nifft, and a sense of dark mystery sets the tone from the beginning. Nifft isn’t dead, exactly, but he has been dragged away by some unnamed fiend and Shag is quite certain that he will never come back to Earth. This being the case, Shag feels that he is now free to release the contents of Nifft’s journals.
There are four of them; “Come Then, Mortal, We Will Seek Her Soul”, “The Pearls Of The Vampire Queen”, “The Fishing Of The Demon-Sea”, and “The Goddess In Glass”. Each of them has an introduction in which Shag discusses the providence of the work and speculates as to the authorship. While told in first person, this does not guarantee that they were written by Nifft himself—he often recounted tales that were then transcribed by others, with varying degrees of accuracy.
Shag also uses his introductions to discuss the geography, history, and politics of the region. These, as I said, are among my favorite sections of the book, mostly due to Shag’s references to disputes with his colleagues regarding this or that minor point of scholarship. It is in these passages that Shea’s world feels most real to me—by arguing for his own views on a particular controversy Shag convinces us of the reality of the world in which those controversies exist. His tone is supercilious and pedantic and often humorous in the way of people who take minor points far too seriously.
Those moments of humor sorely needed, because Nifft’s adventures are horrific. These tales are not for the faint of heart—this book is as dark as fantasy gets.
In the first story, Nifft and his partner go to Hell. Some time ago a pair of lovers made a suicide pact. The woman kept it, but the man stayed alive, and now the ghost of the dead woman is looking for revenge. She hires Nifft to kidnap the man and drag him bodily down to the underworld. Hell is described in vivid detail and at great length. Sights, sounds, smells, all recounted in flat, realistic prose.
The second story is one of the great fantasy heists, a scheme to steal a fortune from the immortal vampire queen of a swamp nation. Daring plans, split second timing, odd specialized equipment, all of the plot elements of a modern bank vault robbery transposed into a fantasy setting. It’s the lightest in tone of the four, but still pretty grim.
The third—and my favorite—tale has Nifft returning to Hell, and here Michael Shea’s genius shines. This is a very different part of Hell than in the first story. Seldom have I seen the underworld given its own geography and ecology so clearly as in this novel. Nifft and his partner are seeking their goal in the shallows of the great demon sea. The diabolic flora and fauna seem related to those of the first story, but are clearly species unique to this region.
The last story has quite a different feel from the others—more science fiction than fantasy. The antagonists seemed to be aliens rather than demons. The story also, in my opinion, suffers somewhat from moralizing. There is an element of “serves them right” in how the ending is handled that I think detracts from the power of the story.
All in all, though, Nifft The Lean is a solid fantasy adventure set in a unique and compelling world.
Misha Burnett is the author of Catskinner’s Book, Cannibal Hearts, The Worms Of Heaven, and Gingerbread Wolves, modern fantasy novels collectively known as The Book Of Lost Doors.