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Revisiting Thieves’ World Anthologies

Readers of Fantasy-Faction are likely to be familiar with Scott Lynch and his Gentlemen Bastards books. Lynch has a style that is a pleasure to read, and has given us some very memorable characters. But Lynch has also accomplished a highly engaging bit of worldbuilding, and created a place in which “Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser would have felt right at home,” according to George R. R. Martin.

It was the worldbuilding as much as the title of the third Gentlemen Bastards book that drove me back to my bookshelf lately, as Lynch’s latest, Republic of Thieves, brought to mind Robert Lynn Asprin’s Thieves’ World from 1979. The “thieves’ world” of the title was not actually a planet of outlaws, but instead, the city of Sanctuary, a backwater community in decline and overrun with lawlessness. And yet it really was a new world of sorts, in that the book represented a bold and daring experiment in fantasy storytelling.

As Asprin tells it, it was the very type of worldbuilding that Lynch has done so well was one of the driving factors in the creation of Thieves’ World. It’s a lot of hard work. “[W]henever one sets out to write heroic fantasy,” writes Asprin, “it was first necessary to reinvent the universe from scratch regardless of what had gone before. Despite the carefully crafted Hyborean world of Howard or even the delightfully complex town of Lankhmar which Leiber created, every author was expected to beat his head against the writing table and devise a world of his own. Imagine, I proposed, if our favorite sword-and-sorcery characters shared the same settings and time-frames. Imagine the story potentials.”

This over-drinks conversation with Gordon Dickson and Lynn Abbey on the eve of the 1978 Boskone Science Fiction Convention eventually led to the creation of a shared-universe anthology that ran to some 12 books, not including spin-offs and tie-ins. We’ll be taking a look at them, six at a time, and revisiting this grand experiment that “earned a panel all its own at the World Science Fiction Convention.”

Thieves’ World (1979)

2014 SEP Thieves' World (cover)While a driving force behind the concept was to not have to create a world in order to tell a story, it still remained for Asprin to do the work initially to build such a world, with the help of the likes of John Brunner, Poul Anderson and others (including Jim Odbert on mapping this new land). The first of the Thieves’ World series, Thieves’ World, had a line-up of authors that included Brunner, Abbey, Anderson, Andrew Offut, Asprin, Joe Haldeman, Christine DeWees and Marion Zimmer Bradley. You’ll notice that Dickson did not get a story ready in time for the first book, nor did Philip Jose Farmer, nor Roger Zelazny, all of whom had initially been slated for inclusion.

In Thieves’ World, we are introduced to the city of Sanctuary and the political machinations that have put the Emperor’s naïve and too-popular half-brother in the governorship, and we experience the conflict that takes place as the new religion of the conquerors seeks to supplant the old and established religion of the conquered. If the book is perhaps a little slow to start, it can be attributed to the fact that this is, after all, a new mode of storytelling. Given the very nature of many tales being told by many tellers, the book can be forgiven for having to feel its way into a rhythm. We are introduced to the cast of characters, including beggars and crime lords, wizards and soldiers, minstrels and thieves, as this new chapter in the life of Sanctuary begins, life under the governorship of Prince Kadakithis.

Tales from the Vulgar Unicorn (1980)

Tales from the Vulgar Unicorn (cover)The second volume of the anthology collection is Tales from the Vulgar Unicorn, referencing a tavern that serves as a nexus for many of the stories in the books. This collection includes submissions from Farmer, David Drake, Abbey, A. E. van Vogt, Janet Morris, Offut, and Asprin. Whereas book one showed us conflict between the new and the old religions, book two shows us the gods themselves taking a hand in the fight for the hearts, minds and souls of the citizens of Sanctuary.

Philip Jose Farmer is arguably the biggest name amongst the contributors, but his story is fairly generic, notable more for the wordplay built into the title than for its content. Janet Morris introduces a new character, Tempus, who will come to dominate much of the storyline, who will, in fact, become so larger-than-life that Thieves’ World is no longer big enough to hold him, and he will go on to a number of his own novels in a spin-off series by Janet Morris and Chris Morris.

Shadows of Sanctuary (1981)

Shadows of Sanctuary (cover)Shadows of Sanctuary is the third anthology in the series, with stories by Thieves’ World veterans Asprin, Offut, Abbey, and Morris, and new-to-the-series Vonda N. McIntyre, C. J. Cherryh, and Diana L. Paxson. Perhaps learning from the past, Asprin begins this collection with a story about one of Thieves’ Worlds’ more interesting characters, Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Lythande.

Shadows also includes another story by Offut that reinforces my opinion that he is incapable of writing a bad story for this series. A number of the tales are Tempus stories, with several of our other recurring characters also making appearances. By virtue of Tempus’ unique relationship with the god Vashanka, these stories also bring us back toward the storyline of the competing deities, and help us to look forward to new developments in the fourth book. All in all, Shadows is the strongest book amongst the first three publications.

Storm Season (1982)

Storm Season (cover)The fourth book of the Thieves’ World anthologies contains only six stories, compared to the eight in the first book and the seven each in the second and third collections, and it actually feels shorter as one reads it. All six stories are by authors who have written previously for the series.

In his Editor’s Note, Asprin warns the reader of a change to be found in book four. “While in the earlier volumes I have tried to keep the stories in the order in which they occur, this has proved to be impossible in Storm Season … Rather than try to cut and splice the stories into a smooth chronology, I’ve left it to the reader to understand what is happening and construct his/her mental timeline as necessary.” I have commented on and approved of some of Asprin’s previous editorial decisions, but in this case, I think the book might have been better served by cutting and splicing.

Much of Storm Season pertains to the conflict between Asprin’s gladiator/crime lord Jubal and Morris’ Tempus, and the other stories work to move this plotline along, while telling their own tales. Offutt, as usual, steals the show with a Shadowspawn story, and he ties together some of the loose strands of the shared narrative. At the end of Storm Season, the reader can look back and say, “Oh, that’s what was going on there. Now I get it!”

The Face of Chaos (1983)

CThe Face of Chaos (cover)haos marks a number of changes in the franchise; this is the first book (in the original run) that lists Lynn Abbey as an editor alongside Robert Asprin. (Reprints include her as an editor for earlier books in the series. Also notable is the fact that she and Asprin were married in August of 1982.) And with Vashanka essentially destroyed, the storyline moves away from that particular divine rivalry to a more worldly conflict, as Sanctuary is subtly invaded, and conquered, by a race of fishy humanoids from beyond the sea. More focus is applied as well to the supernatural competition between the pseudo-vampire Ischade and the Nibisi witch Roxane. Chaos also comprises only six stories, all by previous contributors.

Wings of Omen (1984)

In the sixth book of the collection, the friction between the residents of Sanctuary and the invading Beysib heats up and makes for some exciting reading again. Its story count is back up to eight, Offut’s character Shadowspawn gets some good coverage, and a few fresh new characters also get some play, as well as new-to-the-series authors Robin Bailey and Diane Duane.

As we finish with what will ultimately be the first half of the series, Thieves’ World has grown into a real presence in the fantasy genre. As Asprin mentions in his Afterword in Tales from the Vulgar Unicorn, “[A]nthologies in general don’t sell and … fantasy anthologies specifically are sudden death,” yet the sales of the first few collections generated not only a thriving series and a number of authorized spin-off novels, but also a board game, a role-playing game, and a number of RPG supplements. In fact, at the time of Wings of Omen, the very words “Thieves’ World” and “Sanctuary” had been trademarked for the franchise by Asprin and Abbey.

Next month we’ll look at books seven through twelve of the series.

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7 Comments

  1. Avatar G R Matthews says:

    I never read past the first one but, having read this, I could be tempted to seek them out.

    • Thanks for the look back! I absolutely loved those books when they first came out and still do a re -read every once in awhile!

    • Avatar rkrugg says:

      One way to test the waters might be to try to locate the omnibus collection of the first three books… Thieves’ World, Unicorn and Shadows were published as one book under the title Sanctuary as a book club selection hardback.

  2. Avatar Justin Brown says:

    Ah, what a nostalgia trip! My Thieves’ World paperbacks are long-lost and I’m sad that ebooks aren’t available.

    The stories I remember best are those featuring Shadowspawn (the knife throwing dude shown here on the cover of Shadows).

  3. Avatar rkrugg says:

    Not only is Shadowspawn a great character, but Andrew Offut’s writing is intelligent and witty… for example, Offut’s story in Tales from the Vulgar Unicorn is titled “Shadow’s Pawn”…

  4. Avatar janet morris says:

    Thanks for the fine retrospective on the beginnings of Thieves World(R) and the Sacred Band of Stepsons. Someone commented that they were sad no e books are available from the series. we thought so too, and addressed our works from those days. Perseid Press has reprinted all the original Sacred Band of Stepsons stories from Thieves World in two novelized anthologies, expanded and revised by me and Chris with new scenes and new insights in their “Author’s Cut” series. These include “Tempus,” all the earliest Sacred Band Tales from TW and some available nowhere else; and “The Fish the Fighters and the Song-girl.” Perseid also reissued Author’s Cut editions the first three authorized Thieves’ World novels, Beyond Sanctuary, Beyond the Veil, and Beyond Wizardwall. And to make things sweeter, with authorization from Lynn Abbey, in 2010 Perseid released The Sacred Band, in which Tempus and his Stepsons return to Thieves’ World after a decade’s absence. All of these new and enhanced editions are available in trade and e-book, some in hard cover, and some also in audio book format from Amazon, B&N, iTunes, and Audible.com. And… we’re working on a new Sacred Band novel, set in mythic antiquity.

  5. Avatar rkrugg says:

    All you Tempus fans out there, Janet Morris’ “A Man and His God” Kindle edition is FREE right now until midnight Pacific time (Oct. 2).

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