Thieves’ World edited by Robert Lynn Asprin

This entry is part 22 of 56 in the series 2022 Reads

As with other posts in this series, these #booksread2022 posts go anywhere from a few weeks to a month after I’ve read them. I read this particular book back in April.

Shared world fiction wasn’t exactly new to the world in the 70s and 80s, but it became a really big thing at the time. In the 80s, shared-world story collections constantly seemed to be visible. Several big series appeared in bookstores and library paperback racks through most of my youth: Merovingian Nights, Liavek, Heroes in Hell, Man-Kzin War… and of course, the most omnipresent of them all was Thieves’ World. Though I’m certain that I didn’t read all of them, I know I read at least half the series before burning out on fantasy. (That burnout had nothing to do with Thieves’ World: it was mediocre TSR tie-in novels loaned to me by RPGer friends that turned me off the genre—in games and fiction alike—for decades.) 

However, though it’s risen to dominance tie-in fiction (as well as in cinema and TV)—most of the biggest franchises are now shared-world—the idea of independent genre fiction shared world anthologies has pretty much died. (The only exception that comes to mind for me is Wild Cards, a superhero franchise I don’t know much about.) Why and how the shared world craze died, I’m not sure about, but I felt like maybe understanding how it got going might shed some light on that. 

For this reason, I’ve felt curious lately about Thieves’ World. Partly I wonder what I saw in it, and what I missed, reading it as a tween.(I vaguely remember some of the characters, and something about a Beysib invasion—I remember them as vaguely like Lovecraftian Deep Ones—but not much else.) Partly, it’s also because I feel like regardless of its ultimate demise and its quality along the way, the series was more influential on other media—especially RPGs—than it’s given credit for being. To me, there’s a pretty clear line running from Lankhmar to Doskvol, but the and that line feels like it must run straight through Sanctuary. (I’ve never seen John Harper mention Sanctuary, but I would swear I can hear the setting’s echoes in that of Blades in the Dark, even as Harper avoids some of the excesses in the series that aged less well.)

I also wanted to satisfy my curiosity about what actually happened to the series. I hear the collections got progressively worse over time, eventually narrowing to a small subset of the original contributors, and kind of doing what the World of Darkness games did: prioritizing metaplot over everything else to a degree that the fun of the series was choked off for most casual readers. That’s a pretty far cry from the approach indicated in Robert Asprin’s original introduction to the first volume (where he insists that the contradictions between stories are not “inconsistencies” but just differences in the subjective point of view between different denizens of Sanctuary. 

Anyway, I picked up a copy of the SF Book Club hardback containing the first three volumes of the series, and have been slowly making my way through it.

Rather than rehash plot summaries—which you can find elsewhere if you want them, as I see no point in doing this—I thought I’d note reactions to individual stories below the cut. For here, I’ll discuss it more in generalities: 

First, I was surprised how much of a mixed bag the book is—kind of like any anthology of original works. Overall, I found the volume relatively underwhelming, in fact. Some of the stories really fell flat for me, some were okay, and some were pretty good. I found myself marveling at the fact that this volume spawned a whole series of anthologies—twelve in all, plus some novels and an short attempted reboot—as well as several RPG lines. For all that… this first volume really isn’t a brilliant collection, at least not when read from the vantage point of 2022. I have to assume it felt fresh and new, that the grimdarkness titillated people, and the concept of a new shared-world collection was enough of a novelty that it kept people interested.  

Second, about that titillation: yeah, this is very much a product of the late 70s. Sex-as-transgression is one thing, but this book is full of  sexual violence in various forms—offscreen, mostly, with the exception of one story whose author should not surprise us, but even the offscreen stuff is pretty disturbing. I think in this era especially,  I think authors were trying to embrace that fantasy could be written for an adult audience, and that men they could be as grimdark as they wanted to be. But it was still a time when sexual violence was a shorthand for evil even in more straight-laced SF and fantasy, so the need to make this darker and more grim led to some really revolting extremes. For the most part, those extremes are supposed to be horrid and gross, but after a while it begins to feel simultaneously over the top and lazy. 

Third, the really off-putting stuff actually happens in several of the better-written of the stories, most of which were written by authors better known for writing SF. I’d say the best stories in the book are John Brunner’s and Joe Haldeman’s: Haldeman reportedly objected that he’d never published fantasy before when he was invited to contribute, and Brunner, though he wrote some fantasy, mostly was an SF guy. And yet their stories are the standouts. They also have a major portion of the ickiest content, which is what it is, I suppose. 

Fourth, it’s easy to see why this series inspired gamers and multiple official RPG products (the original Chaosium boxed set and supplements as well as a board game from Mayfair Games, and also a 2005 campaign setting package for d20 by Green Ronin). I assume a lot of groups didn’t play Sanctuary as it appeared in the first book—I cannot imagine that many people wanted their RPG games full of sexual violence and brothels—and focused more on the thievery, drug trading, conflicts with cults and representatives of the Rankan Empire.   

An abbreviated blow-by-blow, for the first volume: 

“Introduction” (by Robert Asprin) sets the stage for the anthology, introducing a storyteller and the fact that Sanctuary is a colony occupied by the Rankan Empire, to which a royal prince has been sent to “clean things up.”

“Sentences of Death” by John Brunner establishes the grimdark feel of Sanctuary very effectively. It’s one of the better-written stories in the book. The magic is weird, the wizard is weird, and the revenge story is solid, which is not a surprise since it’s Brunner. That said, there is a kind of trauma-porn element to the story, and at the heart of the story is an offscreen incident of sexual violence against a disturbingly young child; the onscreen response is the child seeking magical revenge as a teenager. 

I was surprised to see Brunner as the first author in the first book: I think of him more as a post-modernist SF writer thanks to Stand on Zanzibar, even if, yes, he did sometimes write fantasy. (He’s one of several contributors to this volume, like Joe Haldeman, that I associate primarily with SF.) 

“The Face of Chaos” by Lynn Abbey was not bad, considering it was her first published story. I don’t care for stereotypical “gypsy” analogues in fantasy, but the black comedy in this tale is charmingly horrible, in the rough neighborhood of Weekend and Bernie’s, where a cosmic and personal disaster is averted. A cult plans to sacrifice a girl, but the protagonist and her allies contrive to swap the drugged girl for a corpse during transport to the planned site of the sacrifice. 1 

“The Gate of the Flying Knives” by Poul Anderson is… eh. I expected to like it more than I did, given Anderson’s fame. Tonally it didn’t feel like it was in the same setting: Anderson wobbled between a more high fantasy tone and the grittier, nastier feel of Sanctuary. The story itself could have been alright, I guess, but it’s marred by extremely wooden dialog and a major internal self-contradiction, and it hinges on a magic-mathematical punchline that didn’t satisfy me particularly. I suspect it was included because Anderson was such a big name that it helped sell the book (to the publisher, and to readers). 

“Shadowspawn” by Andrew Offutt disappointed me. Having read last year the harrowing memoir penned by Offutt’s son, I wasn’t surprised by the way Offutt wove in bits of smut, and if he hadn’t been so painfully awkward about it, it probably wouldn’t have stood out in context: half the tales in this book feature brothels in one context or another, after all. But Hanse, the protagonist also known as Shadowspawn, is an unmistakeable Gary Stu, in the most terribly obvious way. I guess some people like that—Shadowspawn was a fan favorite—but it put me off. The story’s saving grace is that Shadowspawn isn’t actually so brilliant: for all the praise heaped upon him by others throughout the tale, he’s inept at times and he literally ends up falling down a well during his last flight from consequences, finally needing to accept rescue from (and alliance with) one of his enemies. 

I didn’t know what to expect from “The Price of Doing Business” by Robert Lynn Asprin. When I was young, I read several of his Phule’s Company books but ended up not really liking them very much, and reading nothing else by him. This tale was… okay? It’s very much a whirlwind  introduction to a lot of Sanctuary’s major personalities: some through rumors recounted by characters, and others—like Hakiem the storyteller and Jubal, a former gladiator turned slaver and crime lord. Jubal is the focal character here, and there’s a completely bananas scene near the end where he fights off a gang of street kids who are intent on murdering him. It brought to mind that “memey” question that circulated online about how many small kids someone could fight off at once:

Jubal survives, but has to kill a few kids to do it, and, again, it’s a “Hellhound” (one of the new, imperial city guard) who saves his bacon, before contritely lecturing him about his life choices. It’s a very “oh so grimdark” set piece. (I did wonder why, in such a nasty city, the kids didn’t just get their hands on some poison and take Jubal out that way instead.)

“Blood Brothers” by Joe Haldeman (another author who mainly is associated with SF2) is actually interesting, despite it being over-the-top nasty. Others have panned it, I think mainly because its protagonist, a barkeep and drug dealer named One-Thumb, is basically a complete and utter sociopath. (Again, the grimdarker-than-grimdark thing rears its head.) In this case, One-Thumb is so nasty that his sexual kink is sexual assault… sometimes followed by murder. I think it was somewhat common during this era for sexual violence to be used as a kind of shorthand for illustrating the depths of cruelty and villainy to which a character will stoop. I find that the practice has aged really poorly, for multiple reasons. Even so, I thought “Blood Brothers” was one of the better-written pieces in the book, with a creepy twist and a few surprises. Haldeman lays the evil evilness on too thick for my taste, but the sorcery is twisted and weird enough to make the piece memorable. 

“Myrtis” by Christine DeWees is also among the better stories in the book. This tale was DeWees’ debut… and her last solo publication as well. According to Asprin, she was an acquaintance of his and Abbey’s, invited to submit as a backup. I guess when Gordon R. Dickson’s contribution was rejected, DeWees’ got used.) The story is quite decent, so I was surprised that she went on to publish almost nothing else. 3 The story’s very plotty, and involves a madam, taxes, and a wizard. The setup sure feels like it’s presenting a major player in the city, but I have no idea if the character ever recurred, despite DeWees’ absence from later volumes. 

“The Secret of the Blue Star” by Marion Zimmer Bradley is… uncomfortable, for the obvious reasons. Yeah, yeah, we can separate art from artist—kind of. However, nasty people especially tend to weave their nastiness into their work: see Lovecraft, Ezra Pound, etc., and …  yes, that’s also true of this tale. It weaves between capable writing and painfully lazy infodumping, but worse is the fact that the protagonist is pretty much an MZB Mary Sue who, yep, uses magic to engage in sexual abuse of a female child in the story, justifying it as a “necessity” while also very much relishing the fact that the victim is an “innocent… girl child.” Like, seriously, ugh. The story also has a “big twist” at the end that depended on unnecessarily tortured prose throughout.4 

This was the first piece by MZB I’ve ever read, and I assume it will also be the last. (It’s also her only contribution to Thieves’ World, for what it’s worth.)

The volume closes with an essay by Robert Asprin on how the series got created. He does mention that the idea grew out of conversations with Lynn Abbey and Gordon R. Dickson (though Dickson’s story never made it into the first anthology). Lynn Abbey became the owner of the series rights later on, as part of the settlement in what she described as “a typically tortured divorce” from Robert Asprin—which is why she was able to (somewhat unsuccessfully) relaunch it in 2002. But in this afterword, Asprin talks as if he spearheaded the project, and it made me wonder whether he minimized her role at the start, reflected her changing role later on, or whether her acquisition of the rights was a legal issue settled in the divorce like the rest of their property. 

Either way, the account leaves out a crucial detail reported by RPG designer Greg Stafford on The Acaeum:

I had met Robert at a game of SF convention. He told me how his TW project had come about because he had played roleplaying games. One day he and a bunch of writers were complaining how difficult it is to make up a new fantasy setting every time they wanted to write a story, and he suggested the series, with him as the co-ordinator (GM) and everyone could contribute, as long as they followed the rule (i.e.- no killing each others main characters, etc.)

Of course, back in the 70s and 80s it’s not surprising a major author might not bother to mention his RPG hobby, but it is an interesting bit of trivia. (Stafford mentions this in the context of explaining how Thieves’ World originally got turned into an RPG setting.) 

All in all, the book was really a mixed bag, and it’s interesting—and a bit surprising—that it made such a splash back in 1979, though I think the concept of a shared-world series with such a dark setting was probably part of why. (Also, the publisher had signed a contract with Asprin for a second volume before the first was even out, which I think gave the series some momentum early on. The concept was enough of a selling point that the quality mattered less, I guess.) Lynn Abbey became a coeditor at some point in the series—I don’t know when—but I get the sense she was involved in some way even from its genesis, even if her role grew with time. I’m sure there are tons of behind-the-scenes stories out there from back when the books were being put together. Sadly, I suspect those might be more interesting than some of the actual stories that ended up in the books. 

Since I have the second and third volumes of the series already (they’re also included in this hardback I read volume 1 in), so I’ll probably return to the series eventually, because I’d like to see how they compare, and whether the second volume improved on the first. (I’ve already been told that the second volume starts with a really good story, for example.) Even so, my enthusiasm to revisit Sanctuary is a bit diminished at the moment, so I’m taking my time with it. 

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  1. This story, especially, screams Blades in the Dark: the setup would make for an excellent score for any group with a Whisper and in which cults feature into the game.

  2. Asprin recounts urging him to give the genre a try in order to submit to the series, and this was the result.

  3. The only other publication I can find mention of is a collaborative Elfquest short story written with C.J. Cherryh in the 80s.

  4. The prose is, in fact, much more tortured than it needs to be: I know from experience, having translated a story that involved a similar “surprise” reveal toward the end.

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