Nifft the Lean
by Michael Shea
A collection of fantasy short stories in the Vancian mode, characterised by elaborate diction and a decadent mood. Like Vance, the diction isn’t quite supported by a style as smooth as that of, say, Clark Ashton Smith (whose work this sort of thing otherwise recalls). On the other hand, Shea’s work is probably more intensively plotted than Smith’s, and the volume’s tied together by ‘introductions’ that help situate the stories in their subject’s overall career. There’s an abundance of imagination on display, and the sort of cheerful refusal to take itself wholly seriously that can result in characters with names like Vulvula, the Vampire Queen.
But as you might imagine, it is a bit rich. I found the whimsy of the book, along with its richness of diction, made it best absorbed in small-to-mid-size doses. Which was a bit of a problem, in that one of the stories is a long novella in which Nifft and an associate wander through Hell. It’s not a particularly clever Hell, in the sense of presenting new spiritual tortures; but it’s quite spectacular, in the sense of presenting new physical tortures and gothic imagery. Still, it does start to become repetitive, and I at least needed some time away from the story by the mid-point in order to return later with refreshed eyes.
This is actually a bit odd, in that much of what makes Shea’s style (and Vance’s style, and Smith’s style) work is its novelty. That is, what really makes them stand out is not the ostentatiousness of the words they use, but the whimsy. The unexpected word that’s not only right, but arch, and throws a new light or an ironic tint across the whole scene or story. Shea does that, but while with Smith I’ll joyfully immerse myself in his wordplay for hours at a time, Shea’s prose tends to push me out. I think this speaks to a slight difference in the type of irony he uses; a little bit less profound, or else a little bit more prone to contrast itself with reality, I think (though, oddly, his world’s more fully-developed in terms of history and geography than anything I know of by Smith). Well worth reading, then, but the ultimate effect will likely be determined by your personal reaction to Shea’s tonal choices.