A World of Thieves
It is nearing the end of a quarter and I have work due for competitions while I pound away on my second novel. I inform you of this so that you can understand how I may lose track of time every now and again and I totally didn’t mean to not post yesterday – I just merely forgot it was Monday. Regardless, I have been rather busy with my work and preparing another adventure up north that I have little to share. Combined with some recent posts focused on complaining, I thought it was perhaps high time that I wrote a glowing and wonderful review that extols the enjoyment of this medium and art form. So, of course, here’s a long overdue praising of the anthology Thieves’ World.
“What inspired you to write?” no one asked me ever. But if they did, I am certain I would list Robert Asprin and Lynn Abbey’s 1980s anthology collection as one of my biggest influences. On the rare occasions I actually discuss fantasy with anyone, I always mention it as one of my favourite series. This usually prompts a “who?” from my companion which gives me the impression of a well learned hipster. Let others have their Tolkiens, Rothfuss’, Salvatores and Bradleys for I am more than happy with the rough and seedy world of Sanctuary.
Sadly, I am not a hipster. I didn’t choose Thieves World as my favourite series because no one has ever read them. In fact, I was rooting through questionable second hand book stores for elusive copies to finish my twelve volume collection well before I cared about social presentation and fitting in with my peers. In fact, it was an act of serendipity that I stumbled across the works in the first place. I was visiting my Aunt and she took me to this large warehouse where rows and rows of books stretched out like a literary farmer’s market. Placards dangling from thin chains were the only guideposts for navigating the maze of tables in search fare which would be palatable to my tastes. I was a child raised on Lewis and Tolkien and long gravitated towards the fantasy genre even though this particular place had only the smallest section devoted to my budding imagination.
I peered over the narrow collection squeezed between horror and murder mystery – for I was well in the fiction portion of the warehouse and in the late eighties the crime and suspense genres were in full swing. On reflection, I should not have been surprised by a lack of frolicking and light-hearted tales. If ever there was an adoration for gritty realism it would be the time when even James Bond fell into the edgy era of Timothy Dalton’s Living Daylights and Licence to Kill. Here was a small collection of dark covers with a fascination for blood and weaponry sandwiched between the walnut cracking biceps of Conan the Barbarian.
I don’t know what attracted me specifically to this collection. Had I to guess, it would have been its oddly pear-white border shared with its brethren amongst those dark tomes. Of course, as a child, my decisions were based hardly on fact or reason. This cover had a large, red clad gladiatorial figure looming over some ratty individual in bright blue as a classical Romanesque figure stood motioning in the background. There was a sense of life on its front but it bore the wear and fade of time. I picked it up, thumbing through the aged yellow pages curious over the held tale. I know I debated long and hard whether I wanted this book. I had only the one to pick and that it had so many in its series was both a blessing and curse. Reading over the back, I discovered that it wasn’t just the beginning of a lengthy saga as fantasy is so apt to follow now but merely a collection of disparate tales bound together like some medieval manuscript plucked from some forgotten vault.
I took the plunge, thinking if I did enjoy it I would have many more to look forward to reading and if it was awful then there was no great loss since it was self contained anyway. I wouldn’t be left with some dangling thread or cliffhanger urging me to purchase the next installment.
I took the book proudly to my aunt and it was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.
I’ve read the series over and over through the years and can say, with certainty, that my love for the books is not due solely to being a child and having no taste. There was something fresh and exciting about the stale, despicable land of Sanctuary. This was not a world of glorious heroes, distressed damsels and wicked beasts. I did not know it at the time but the Thieves’ World anthologies represented everything I’ve argued for fantasy. It was unapologetically chaotic, despicable, salacious and objectionable. It was a series that placed the magnifying lens over the worst that humanity had to offer and it was unapologetic in the representations it gave.
It was also, predominantly, written by authors who didn’t write fantasy.
I don’t think this is a coincidence. I never appreciated the people behind the works until I started reading the collection of rants and essays provided the rare volume whenever the editor didn’t have enough submissions to fill out the pages. I found the real world struggle in producing the tales almost as fascinating as the stories themselves. They gave such insight into the creative process and the politics behind writing itself that carry every bit as much drama as the trials faced by the heroes on the pages.
But I am getting well ahead of myself.
Thieves’ World is, in essence, a literary game of Dungeons and Dragons. It spawned from the mind of Robert Asprin at a fantasy and science fiction convention where he conceived of creating a series composed of different authors writing in a shared space and with similar characters. He basically envisioned a written MMO. Authors would be given an idea of the world and setting, an outline of all other participating authors and their characters and given the freedom to do what they liked with the sole caveat that no author’s character was to be killed or disposed without their permission. Basically, the premise would be that Harry Potter, while spending his time fighting evil Lord Voldemort, would have moments when he’d stumble across private eye and magician Dresden on his way to solve another ridiculous crime and in that brief exchange the two could pass on important information or artifacts to help one another or maybe Dresden would divert a bunch of pursuing vampires to go bother Potter while he sneaked off to do whatever it is that character does.
Needless to say, there was copious amounts of alcohol involved in the creation of this series and probably quite a bit required for recruiting as well.
However, I find that this approach created a rather unique world. The setting was, essentially, a hastily drawn map handed out to a very diverse group of authors. In my envisioning, the city exists like a sort of dry, dusty northern African commune with mudbrick adobes and curious bazaars filled with relics from around the world. Other authors, however, had different visions and sections of the city would produce squeezing York narrows or grand palaces on raised hills. Instead of detracting from the overall experience, this hectic creativity lends a frenetic energy to the works. They breathe more fully than any other world. This clash of cultures added a strange diversity you can not find in any other work. Just when you think you have an idea of what the city of Sanctuary and its people are like, another author comes along and introduces whole swathes of locations and people that continue to delight and surprise.
I do not liken it to D&D for no reason. It is the only example of a collective creation that I can recall and the original premise – to have heroes weaving in and out of tales – creates a very personal and intricate web of deception and politics. While no great harm could be done to an author’s character, this did not exclude terribly inconveniencing them, dismembering them or murdering those closest to them.
And there is much inconveniencing, dismembering and murdering.
There is, of course, a danger to this format. Due to the wildly different nature of the authors, the writing style varied greatly. Also, authors and their characters came and went without any explanation of what happened to them. Some of my favourite authors contributed only one or two stories and their characters would feature as important players in a number of tales before quietly disappearing into the shadows. There were a few authors who I simply did not like and chief amongst them was the overly prolific Janet Morris who railroaded a few of the volumes with her obnoxiously do-goody Tempus and Stepsons who follow far closer in vein to the fantasy wish-fulfillment of Patrick Rothfuss then the den of thieves and anti-heroes of the other contributors.
More than anything, however, is the undermining of traditional fantasy tropes and expectations. As I mentioned, many of the authors weren’t fantasy writers. A number of them were more famous for their science fiction contributions and I feel there is a very distinct difference how authors, in general, approach the different streams. Blood Brothers by Joe Haldeman is perhaps the best example, following a despicable crime lord that runs the seedy popular tavern in town and whose story mostly focuses around a missing brick of illicit drug. The story is one of the more grounded and disturbing of the original bunch, owing in large part to Haldeman’s own admission that it was based on an experience of his during the Vietnam War.
Simply put, I love the Thieves’ World anthologies. I was really excited for the brief return of the anthology beneath Lynn Abbey’s care but, unfortunately, it lacked a lot of the heart of the original series. Partly, Lynn is a far more traditional fantasy author and I feel the two volumes produced beneath her were trending into a lot of the cliches of the genre the originals avoided. Mostly, however, it lacked all the characters that I had grown to love over twelve stories. Shadowspawn, Enas Yorl, Cappen Vara and even Prince Rakein were all absent and the new cast didn’t catch as well as the old. Possibly because there was only two books but it’s hard to say.
Anyway, I full-heartily recommend the series to anyone who listens to me. My sister gave it a go but abandoned it because it was too “heavy” for her tastes. But, after having friends continuously push their favourites upon me without any consideration for my preferences, I think it’s only fair I do the same from time to time.
So if you can ever find them, pick them up! Though doing so may involve the harrowing adventure through musty and aged used book stores as I had done so many years ago.