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Revisiting Thieves’ World Anthologies – Part Two

Welcome back to our stroll down memory lane in the city of Sanctuary. We’re revisiting the Thieves’ World series, the twelve anthologies that resulted from an idea by Robert Asprin and friends to write sword and sorcery stories in a shared universe. The concept made an impact on generations of readers, including best-selling fantasy author Robin Hobb (who called it a “brilliant idea,” and says that the book still sits on her shelf) and award-winning science fiction author Cory Doctorow (who recalls that the series ‘rocked his world’ as a teen). Previously we worked our way through the first half of the series and now we’ll explore the remaining six books.

The Dead of Winter (1985)

The Dead of Winter (cover)The Dead of Winter is book seven, and it’s an apt title, as the setting is winter in the city, and the storyline deals with the newly dead, the undead, the restless dead, the necromancers who control the dead, and the land of the dead. This collection is a plump one, with eight stories, all by previous contributors, and deals largely with the return of the Stepsons to Sanctuary and the conflict with the Nisibisi witch, Roxane.

The afterword by Andrew Offut (entitled “Some Blatantly Personal Observations”) is worth the price of admission, as he alludes to behind-the-scenes spats and maneuverings, including the fact that he had recently signed a contract to publish a tie-in Shadowspawn novel. (In fact, Shadowspawn would come out in 1987, while Janet Morris’ Sacred Band authorized tie-in novels – Beyond Sanctuary, Beyond the Veil, and Beyond Wizardwall – would come out in 1985, 1985 and 1986, respectively.)

Soul of the City (1986)

Soul of the City (cover)Next up is Soul of the City from 1986, and it is the anomaly of the series. It contains six stories, written by three authors (the first and last stories are by Janet Morris, C.J. Cherryh wrote the second and fourth, and Lynn Abbey did the third and fifth). This book breaks the form and somewhat contradicts the premise of the shared-world storyline. It tends more to a collaborative collection instead of the fresh new shared-world model that made the earlier books so popular. By rights, this should count against it. But I have to admit that it makes the book perhaps a bit more readable and cohesive. It’s easier to follow all of the threads of the tales as they weave together and, to complete the analogy, these stories tie up the loose ends. Oh, there’s still opportunity for storylines to continue, but all in all, book eight would have been a convenient and satisfying stopping point for the franchise.

Blood Ties (1986)

Blood Ties (cover)Making Soul the cutoff point was not in the cards, however, and the next Thieves’ World collection was published just scant months later. Soul of the City came out in January of 1986, and Blood Ties came out in August of the same year. Blood Ties has almost exactly the same lineup of authors as Dead of Winter, with the exception that Janet Morris is joined by Chris Morris, and Andrew Offutt is joined by Jodie Offutt.

And although Soul would have been a fine stopping point, these veterans of the Thieves’ World campaign do succeed in keeping the story of Sanctuary moving along. (And I just have to say this: I had been warming up to Molin Torchholder over the past few books, but what he did in Diane Duane’s “The Tie That Binds” was simply unforgivable.) C.J. Cherryh wrote the afterword to this collection, a short but interesting glimpse into the lives of the writers behind the stories. One final note, I usually ignore the titles that are given to the Book Club collections of the books (in this case, an omnibus of TW books #7, #8 and #9) but this grouping was published under the umbrella title The Shattered Sphere, and it works very well, on multiple levels.

Aftermath (1987)

Aftermath (cover)As we head into the final stretch, it’s 1987’s Aftermath in position number 9 of 12. And if you had doubts that change is afoot in our favorite little city, Robert Asprin sets you straight in the foreword: “The Stepsons were leaving Sanctuary.” Many of the story titles reflect this theme of life going on after a world-altering departure, such as Janet Morris’ “Wake of the Riddler,” and David Drake’s “Inheritor.” But there is also the feeling that the cycle of the story may be coming full circle, as Aftermath includes a story by John Brunner, from whom we haven’t heard since the original Thieves’ World, with characters that we met in the very first tale in that very first collection. Plus, Offut brings Hanse back to town fresh from his adventures up north in his own novel. Aftermath also includes a brand new writer to the series, Mark C. Perry with “Cade.”

Uneasy Alliances (1988)

Uneasy Alliances (cover)I can’t say what it felt like to read Uneasy Alliances when it came out. From today’s viewpoint, some two and a half decades later, I can’t help but see it as the anthology that is just one shy of the big finale to the Thieves’ World series. It’s a collection to be raced through, to see what will happen. And it’s a collection to drag one’s feet through, lest the end come too soon. Alliances has two fresh writers, with fresh characters: Jon DeCles introduces an acting company that takes up residence in Sanctuary, while C.S. Williams treats us to a day or two in the life of the local proprietor of the Glue Shop. And also of note, this is the first collection since Tales from the Vulgar Unicorn (TW #2) that doesn’t include a story by Janet Morris (although it does have a tale by Chris Morris, one with the Shepard, a character who seems to have taken on the role of ‘mysterious warrior’ so recently played by Tempus).

Stealers Sky (1989)

Stealer’s Sky (cover)The final book of the twelve-volume series is Stealers’ Sky, published in December of 1989. The lineup on authors for this collection is an interesting one; longtime members of the TW community Andrew Offut, Diana L. Paxson, C.J. Cherryh, and Robin Wayne Bailey are joined by relative newcomer Jon DeCles and brand-new contributor Duane McGowan. And of course, Lynn Abbey and Robert Asprin, co-creators and more recently co-editors (or as Offut once referred to them, mommy and daddy of the TW family) have their say; Abbey penned “Web Weavers” (for all intents and purposes, the last story in the book) and Asprin wrote the Introduction and a final piece that is essentially this collection’s Afterword.

In a 2002 interview with Steven H. Silver, Paxson notes that she felt that the series ended abruptly, and that if she had known that Sky were going to be the last book, she would have wrapped up the storyline of her character, Lalo the Limner. But it’s hard to read this book and not feel that Abbey and Asprin had a pretty solid idea that the end was nigh. In Abbey’s story, her Walegrin appears to get a (gasp!) happy ending, and in Asprin’s end-piece, entitled “To Begin Again,” it seems that Hakiem, Jubal, and Zalbar (all of whom are characters from the very beginning of the TW saga) will be leaving Sanctuary behind for other lands.

And if Hakiem is leaving Thieves’ World, how can it not be the end? Asprin’s Hakiem has been the Storyteller, and we the readers have been his audience. But over the past decade – from 1979 to 1989 – we and Hakiem have grown to be more and more alike. We the readers know dozens and scores of tales of the city – as does Hakiem. We the readers have watched Sanctuary suffer through politics, religion and magic, and have seen its economic revival – as has Hakiem. The Beysa once said to Hakeim that he knew “…so much about Sanctuary and [watched] so many of its citizens…,” – as have we. And Hakiem “loved this bedraggled town as he loved the tough breed of people it spawned.” As do we. (Hakiem even toyed with the idea of leaving Sanctuary once or twice before, as did some of the readers. But ten years in, both he and we were still there, still experiencing the “eight million stories in the naked city” referenced by Robin Wayne Bailey in the aforementioned interview.)

So when Asprin tells us that Hakiem is leaving Thieves’ World, I think he’s telling us that we are leaving Thieves’ World. As it turns out, it’s not that there aren’t other tales of Sanctuary to be told, but as Hakiem himself said, waaaaay back when we met him for the very first time, “That is a story in itself … requiring separate payment.” For now, we’ll just close with the Storyteller’s final thoughts from the end of Stealer’s Sky; the end of the original Thieves’ World series:

“As he knew all too well, each new beginning is also an ending, and on the road of life, there is no turning back.”

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