Visions of Paradise

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Thieves' World

There is generally a different pleasure in watching a weekly tv series than in watching a movie. The weekly series has a continuing cast of characters, and if the series is well-done, its characters grow steadily through the series as the viewer relates to them more and more as well. There is also a sense of familiarity with the show’s setting, which should itself grow richer and deeper as the series progresses.

The same is true with standalone books as compared to long-running series. My favorite series was Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover series, and while the characters were generally different from book-to-book, the world itself and its culture developed continuously through the books, so that Darkover itself was actually the main character in the series.

A popular trend in f&sf in the late 1970s and 1980s was “shared world” universes, in which an editor created a setting and then asked various writers to write stories set in that world. Thieves’ World was the first popular series which pretty much created the framework for those which followed. What helped make the series particularly interesting is that individual authors created their own characters and follow their exploits in each story they wrote. So while the town of Sanctuary itself developed steadily under the hands of various writers, different characters flitted in and out of stories along the way. Other writers were able to use any creators’ character, but only their creator had the option of causing them irrevocable change and developing them through the series.

There were 9 Thieves’ World books originally, of which I read and enjoyed 5 of them. Now, nearly thirty years later, I’ve decided to go back and begin the entire series again. The first book, entitled Thieves’ World, features some of the finest writers in the entire f&sf field. The first story which sets the tone for all that follows is “Sentences of Death,” by John Brunner. Brunner was a schizophrenic writer. From the late 1960s through the late 1970s he wrote 4 of the best dystopic sf novels ever (Hugo-winner Stand on Zanzibar, The Jagged Orbit, The Sheep Look Up and The Shockwave Rider), but he was primarily one of the finest adventure writers the sf field has ever known. He wrote dozens of space operas and planetary romances in the 1950s and 1960s, an era when such novels were generally looked down upon as lower-level stuff, thus Brunner was largely underappreciated until he started writing serious novels in the mid-1960s such as The Squares of the City and The Whole Man. His story established the milieu of Sanctuary and the people living in it, while telling an absorbing tale of a young woman whose childhood was destroyed by a soldier in the employ of the emperor, his men killing her parents and raping her multiple times. While she is working for a translator in Sanctuary, she sees that soldier who is now in the retinue of the emperor’s younger brother who has recently become governor of Sanctuary, and she realizes this is perhaps her only chance to earn her revenge. This was a strong story and a fitting introduction to Sanctuary.

Lynn Abbey’s “The Face of Chaos” tells of a card-reader Illyria and her metal-working husband whose anvil shatters on the same day that Illyria becomes involved with a strange young woman who is destined to be sacrificed to the gods as part of the laying of a cornerstone for a new temple. A magician informs Illyria that she must find some way to save the woman’s life for her own safety’s sake, so she sets out to do precisely that with the aid of her skeptical husband.

The next story is by Poul Anderson, a classic “hard science” writer who was equally comfortable working with fantasy. “The Gate of the Flying Knives” tells of a priest of the old religion of Sanctuary who resents the imposition of new religions by the governor prince, so he kidnaps the wife of a rival priest. The kidnapped wife has an attendant whose young lover is distraught, so he and a swordsman friend enter the temple itself seeking the 2 women. This is the first true sword-and-sorcery story in Thieves’ World, and the two heroes bear a (likely deliberate) resemblance to Fritz Leiber’s classic heroes Fahfrd and the Grey Mouser. Their tale is very entertaining.

The next two stories introduce two of the recurring characters in Sanctuary. Andrew Offutt’s “Shadowshawn” is about a brazen young swordsman who finds himself in the midst of double-dealings between one of the prince’s concubines, one of his guards (known as hell-hounds) and the emperor himself. Each participant believes they have the upper hand in the dealing, but the ending is surprising and well-done.

Robert Asprin’s “The Price of Doing Business” introduces Jubal, a former gladiator who is now one of the wealthiest and most evil merchants in Sanctuary. He learns a lesson about the dangers of treating all people as mere pawns in his scheming, and about the character of his enemies as well.

Joe Haldeman’s “Blood Brother” is the roughest of the stories in terms of violence, cruelty, and the low value of human life in Sanctuary. One-Thumb is the owner and bartender of the Vulgar Unicorn, the inn in the center of the Maze, the roughest area in Sanctuary. As a payment for a killing, One-Thumb received a block of a drug which is now missing, while his associate who runs a brothel is missing a similar block of drug which seems to be the same one. Somehow they trace the mystery to Sanctuary’s strongest wizard whom they must approach to try to solve the mystery. Other than the violence, my main concern with this story is its ending, which did not totally explain exactly what had happened previously.

The last two stories feature my favorite two characters in this first Thieves’ World book: Myrtis, the madam of the brothel, and Lythande, the magician of the blue star. Christine DeWeese’s “Myrtis” concentrates on the madam, while Marion Zimmer Bradley’s “The Secret of the Blue Star” tells precisely what the title implies, the secret which each magician wearing a blue star on his forehead possesses as their Achilles’ heel. This last story was the best one, along with Brunner’s first story, and altogether I finished the book highly-entertained and anxious to read the next book in the series.


  • I have not thought of this series in ages. For some reason, I only read the first 2 books when they were published. Once again, you add to my reading stack.

    By Blogger Jim Black, At 7:11 PM  

  • Game of Thrones on TV? Theives World would be 10X better and more entertaining, more adventurous, and just plain better characters.

    Only worry would be the Battlestar Gallactica reboot issue; everyone ends up getting a little "dirty" so it gets hard to root for people near the end. But it works for Game of Thrones.

    By Blogger Unknown, At 12:34 PM  

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