1979’s Thieves' World is the first volume in Robert Asprin and Lynn Abbey’s shared-universe anthology series.
Sanctuary: city of adventure! Or to put it another way, Sanctuary: cash-strapped pest-hole to which refugees, riff-raff, and rogues swarm, hoping that an empire uninterested in backwater cities will overlook them. Once a crucial destination along a challenging trade route, Sanctuary’s economy was kneecapped when trade routes changed. Inexorable decline set in. Tragic for the locals who cannot move away but an opportunity for others.
Editions of the anthology prior to 1985 list only Asprin as editor on the cover. Editions after 1985 list both Asprin and Abbey. After a bit of research, I’ve decided to use the post-1985 version of the credits.
A shared universe is one in which a diverse assortment of authors writes stories in a common universe. Thieves' World did not invent the shared universe1. Superhero comics, for example, had long embraced the idea; nor were they the only properties that did. Thieves' World wasn’t even the first prose speculative-fiction shared universe—see the Twayne Triplets and A World Named Cleopatra for earlier examples.
Thieves' World is important because it was successful. In part, this may have been thanks to some fairly Big-Name Authors who took part in the initial offering. The series comprised twelve anthologies in the original 1979-1989 series, another two anthologies in the 21st century new series, seven official novels, at least nine collections and novels related to greater or lesser degree and other material too numerous and diverse to list here. There may be material I am overlooking.
Success breeds imitation. Thieves' World kicked off a boom in prose shared speculative-fiction universes (Not all of which involved Poul Anderson, although many did).
Thieves' World is fantasy of the swords and sorcery rather than the epic variety. Not only do the characters not shape empires; they are also unable to do much about Sanctuary’s decline. There’s magic, but most of the protagonists are common-garden-variety humans; those who use magic often pay a steep price for it. To put it in commonplace, this is more of a RuneQuest/Basic Roleplaying sort of universe than a Dungeons & Dragons setting2.
As Asprin explains in his introduction, setting guidelines were deliberately vague. Each author was free to develop the setting to fit the needs of their story, even if their flights of fancy contradicted what other authors had written. This hands-off policy encouraged competition: authors took to kneecapping each other’s characters to enhance their own. This is a grand tradition in shared universes, back to the days when some priest introduced the all-powerful god of a rival religion as a minor deity of their favoured pantheon. To quote C. J. Cherryh: "You write your first Thieves' World story for pay, you write your second for revenge."
Teen James wasn’t a fan of the series for a few reasons.
One: not only was it fantasy but it distracted a number of my favourite SF authors from writing the SF I preferred. Clearly, this was an intentional affront on the part of well-known authors aimed at some rural Ontario nobody.
Two: when Teen James read fantasy, it generally was not sword and sorcery3—note how none of the Fritz Leiber works I have reviewed star Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser.
Three: even by the standards of the 1970s, when many forms of rape were still perfectly legal, this collection features a lot of really off-putting sexual violence as backstory. The first two points are, of course, silly, but the third stands. This shared world project gives Wild Cards a run for its money where sexual violence is concerned.
And yet … and yet … I can’t help but feel a certain soothing nostalgia when reading this book. Perhaps it is due to the fun the creators seem to be having playing with each other.
What’s in the tin:
Editor's Note • essay by Robert Asprin
A short explanation of the project.
Introduction (Thieves' World) • short story by Robert Asprin
A brief introduction to the city of Sanctuary, told in three short vignettes. The emperor has a surplus step-brother, Prince Kadakithis, whom the emperor loath to execute out of hand. But he’s also unwilling to let the Prince be the centre of plots in the capital city. Thus, assignment as governor to the distant, minor city of Sanctuary.
Sentences of Death• novelette by John Brunner
Chance and literacy offer Jarveena the opportunity to take revenge on a man who cruelly abused her.
The Face of Chaos• novelette by Lynn Abbey
Fortune teller Illyra has a blacksmith protector. When his anvil breaks, Illyra must go to extremes to earn a new anvil.
The Gate of the Flying Knives • novella by Poul Anderson
Cappen Varra and his friend Jamie the Red must defeat otherworldly menaces to save two women from an unpleasant fate.
Cappen Varra predates Thieves' World, first appearing in 1957’s “The Valor of Cappen Varra.”
Shadowspawn • novelette by Andrew J. Offutt
A master thief is drawn into palace shenanigans.
One has to wonder if adopting a cool thief-name like Shadowspawn undermines the whole “not drawing attention to oneself” aspect of surviving as a crook.
The Price of Doing Business • novelette by Robert Asprin
Jubal offhandedly and unjustly kills a supposed informer, little concerned about the victim’s street urchin friend. What he doesn’t expect: that what each street urchin lacks in combat prowess, the urchins as collective make up in numbers.
However many dead kids you’re imagining, add a few.
Blood Brothers• novelette by Joe Haldeman
One-Thumb believes himself untouchable thanks to magical protection and comports himself accordingly. There is, however, an overlooked loophole.
Myrtis • novelette by Christine DeWees
The Prince gets it into his head to tax the brothels of the street into oblivion. He’s a newcomer to Sanctuary; he hasn’t thought to wonder why no previous ruler has ever succeeded in eliminating the brothels. Or perhaps wonder if it is a good idea to ban one of the few profitable activities in Sanctuary.
Given the frequency of lethal plots centering on Prince Kadakithis, it is impressive he finds time to dabble in municipal bylaws.
The Secret of the Blue Star • novelette by Marion Zimmer Bradley
This is a story by someone of whom we do not speak.
The Making of Thieves' World • essay by Robert Asprin
An Asprin’s eye view of the genesis of Thieves' World and the editorial adventures that preceded publication. Workflow was often slowed by the rudimentary technology of the era (communication often limited to words on sheets of paper conveyed between distant locations by a postal service of inconsistent reliability).
Yeah, yeah, these days the exact same problem would be due to overeager spam filters.
1: That credit no doubt goes to whoever it was who first stitched together two unrelated pantheons long before the invention of writing.
Editor’s note: James, that’s the religious power politics of the day. “We have conquered your kingdom and will respect your gods … as long as it’s understood that they are minor deities who bow to Ahura Mazda.”
2: The RPG adaptation did offer stats for AD&D, along with stats for Adventures in Fantasy, Chivalry & Sorcery, DragonQuest, The Fantasy Trip, RuneQuest, Traveller, and Tunnels & Trolls. Non-roleplayers unclear on what the previous sentence means, no worries. I know where my copy of the Chaosium Boxed Set is and will review it.
3: After my former bosses at SFBC force-fed me Karl Edward Wagner, Robert E. Howard, C. L. Moore, and others, I developed more appreciation for S&S.