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Saturday, March 29, 2008

The word for world is 'thief'


I was always pretty much a hard science fiction fan -- I liked Laumer, I liked Heinlein, I liked Niven, I liked Morrissey, I liked Gunn. I had the occasional childhood excursion into the fluffy bunny rabbit land of sword and sorcery fantasy stuff -- LOTR, of course, and a Conan story or two (I had read probably forty separate issues of Marvel's CONAN THE BARBARIAN comic book by that time, but other than the John Buscema artwork, I never saw much to like in that particular series) and some of Andre Norton's Witch World stuff (especially YEAR OF THE UNICORN, a book I read and reread almost literally to tatters in my teens) but even there, it's probably worth pointing out that what led me to Norton's more swordy/spelly stuff was her classic post-Apocalypse teen soaper STAR MAN'S SON (known as DAYBREAK 2024 in the edition I first read), which is very nearly as hard as hard science fiction gets. Yeah, I liked the space ships, the ray guns, the suspended animation tanks, the faster than light drives, the bug eyed aliens, the Earth-born drifter named Dumarest, wandering deeper and deeper into the furthest reaches of the galaxy on a perpetual quest for the rundown, all but forgotten planet of his birth, which every other human dwelling within the Far Stars believed was merely a myth.

Fantasy... feh. Fantasy was soft stuff; fantasy was for babies. I may well have felt that way, despite enjoying the Tolkien I'd read and being a big fan of Gillan & Co, because sometime in my senior year of high school Heather Dougan recommended THE SWORD OF SHANNARA by Terry Brooks to me, and I tried it, and it was to fantasy novels as SUPERMAN IV: THE QUEST FOR PEACE is to film, which is to say, I am still amazed I managed to read as much of it as I did without clawing my own eyes out with a hay rake. So perhaps that experience put me off sword and sorcery, I don't know.(It should certainly have put me off Heather Dougan had I had a functional cerebrum, but, well, when you're 17 years old and terminally besotted, there isn't much that 3 pounds of pulsating gray protein pudding can do about it, no matter how crappy the object of your unrequited passion's taste in literature may be.)

So fantasy was a big 'nuh uh' for me when I headed off to college. However, somewhere in the mid 80s everyone in my college clique had graduated and I had no one to talk about superhero comics with any more, or play superhero RPGs with, either, and one of the guys I was sharing a house with played in about four separate fantasy roleplaying campaigns, you know, with the elves and the orcs and the swords and the sorcery and the clerics and the hobbits and the whatever the hell all else they all had back then, and he invited me along to a session, and I was bored, so off I went. A couple of the campaigns he played in were mediocre at best, but one was tremendous and excellent and awesome, so I started playing in that one. And, for really the first time, I started hanging around with a subset of geeks who were more into fantasy than hard SF (and who mostly didn't read comic books at all, which was a very new experience for me, as prior to that everybody I'd interacted with had been a pretty hardcore comics fan).

Many of my new acquaintances were bibliophiles like I, except they were older and had much, much larger personal libraries than I did. Within that group books tended to get loaned out and traded around a lot. As I wasn't particularly experienced with the sword and sorcery subgenre of fantasy fiction, I got hit with a lot of "Oh, you HAVE to read this book" recommendations, and ended up listening to more than a few of them. So it was that I began to make my way through the 'Must Have' list for young fantasy fan/book collectors circa 1984 or so... the books that you HAD to own, or, at least, had to have read, in order to have any kind of meaningful conversation with anyone else you might be gaming with at that time and in that place.

Stuff on this list would include Barbara Hambly's TIME OF THE DARK trilogy, Saberhagen's seemingly endless BOOK(s) OF SWORDS series, Steve Brust's first Taltos book JHEREG, Zelazney's first AMBER sequence along with LORD OF LIGHT, S.M. Stirling's SNOWBROTHER, L. Sprague deCamp's Krishna stuff, and nearly anything by Piers Anthony. I can't honestly say this period was anything like a heyday for sword and sorcery, since much of what was out back then was crap of the purest ray serene (this would include nearly all the Piers Anthony rubbish, and, of course, Terry Brooks was excreting another five pound volume of human waste product every year or so back then) and some of the best high fantasy had yet to be written in the mid 80s (most of Barbara Hambly's output, all of Lois McMaster Bujold's, and George R.R. Martin's fabulous SONG OF ICE AND FIRE was none of them even a twinkle in a fanboy's eye back then).

And you could add one more title to that theoretical Fantasy Geek of the mid 80s Must Read list -- the first THIEVES' WORLD anthology by Robert Asprin.

THIEVES' WORLD may mean nothing to you, or, if you've heard of it at all, it may make you roll your eyes wearily as you remember the endless sequels, offshoots, and merchandise with a THIEVES WORLD logo that rolled out in geek shops across America from the late 80s through the early 90s. And it can't be denied; once it became obvious that there was some serious interest in the franchise, Robert Asprin and all his various hangers on rode that horse right into the ground. Collections, comic books, roleplaying games, official THIEVES' WORLD gaming dice, and I don't know what the hell all else hit geek stores like some kind of relentless and unending plague over about a five year period, and it all very quickly became a monotonous, nearly nauseating blur to me.

However, the first THIEVES' WORLD volume came out in 1979, and up through the mid 1980s you could not be a fantasy gaming geek if you did not own a copy... or, at the very least, if you could not converse meaningfully as regards the evil of One Thumb, the heroism of Jamie the Red, the innate rogueish charm of Shadowspawn, well, you were a mere hanger on, a trifler and a dabbler, and no one that anyone of consequence could possibly take seriously.

I never owned a copy of THIEVES' WORLD but I shared a house with a guy named Mike Schechter for several years and he had one and I read his several times during that period. I enjoyed most of the stories, although I should probably note at least in passing that I apparently didn't dig them so much that I ever bothered to read any of the sequels or spin offs. The first book did it for me just fine.

A few months ago, SuperWife and I were in a secondhand bookstore looking for Christmas presents, and I found a rather beat up copy of THIEVES' WORLD. I remembered enjoying it twenty years ago, and it was priced to move well south of a buck, so I added it to the stack I was amassing in the crook of my left arm (which, with that addition, at that point came up just about to my nose). I was half afraid that like many of my childhood or early adulthood favorites, this one wasn't going to hold up well to a sudden reappraisal twenty years later (yeah, I'm talking to you, Sondra Marshak and Myrna Culbreath -- there is no hell deep, dark, or hot enough for you and those crappy crappy STAR TREK "Phoenix" Black Omni 'novels')... but, as it turns out, I was wrong. THIEVES' WORLD still, for the most part at least, reads just fine... which wouldn't have surprised me at all, if I'd been able to remember the actual authors I'd find within (or troubled to look at the TOC, as far as that goes).

The book opens with a few introductory pages which I presume are by editor and contributor Asprin, outlining the history of the anthology's setting city, Sanctuary, as well as recapping the current political situation there. Then we move right into John Brunner's "Sentences of Death", a nifty little tale that introduces us to several of Sanctuary's most colorful citizenry, especially that inadvertent shapeshifter and oft accursed wizard Enas Yorl.

From Brunner's deftly woven tale we hie over a couple of avenues so Lynn Abbey can show us a little bit about the lives of Dubro the smith and Illyra the fortune teller, in a story impelled by the charmingly prosaic motivation of those two character's sudden need to secure a replacement for Dubro's broken iron anvil. And while I normally like little of Poul Anderson's output, his story 'The Gate of Flying Knives' is pretty cool, as is his character, the minstrel Cappan Varra.

Following that, Andrew Offutt acquaints us with the quirkily interesting gutter thief Shadowspawn, after which Robert Asprin unfortunately lowers the entire tone of the enterprise with a fairly tedious and not particularly well plotted tale called "The Price of Doing Business". (Apparently, if you want to read a THIEVES' WORLD anthology, the 'price of doing business' is you have to wade through what results when Asprin decides to pay himself as a contributor in addition to the paycheck he's pocketing as editor. Asprin's character Jubal, an ex-gladiator turned ruthless crime boss, is without a doubt the most boring creation in the entire book, as is the story surrounding him. Asprin also has no compunctions about throwing similar charity to his girlfriend of the time, the previously unpublished Lynn Abbey, but as I've already noted, Ms. Abbey's story was much more than merely readable, which is about the best one could say for Asprin's contribution.)

After Asprin finally stops fucking around, the pace picks up again (and fucking how) as we swing into "Blood Brothers", Joe Haldeman's tale of murder, drug running, rape, wizardly intrigue and overall depravity, featuring the relentlessly vicious One Thumb, whose deservedly gruesome end makes for a far more satisfyingly just fictional resolution than S.M. Stirling ever gave us in any Draka novel.

Next up it's Christine DeWees, and if you've never heard of Christine DeWees don't feel bad. I'm fairly sure she's never been published anywhere but in a THIEVES' WORLD anthology, and she is less an accomplished author than she is a walking talking breathing typing avatar of the truism regarding who you know being far more important than what. Asprin advises in his essay on how the book came into existence that with a deadline looming and several stories from big name contributors having been withdrawn or postponed, he turned to some old lady with a motorcycle he knew who liked to write amateur fantasy. She cranked out a story centering around someone else's character, and while it's not a bad story, again, all I can say is, it pays to cultivate editors, because based on my own experiences, neither this thing of DeWees nor the story Asprin himself wrote would have ever sold to any other professional editor anywhere.

Last up we have Marion Zimmer Bradley telling us the story of Lythande the Star-Browed, and if you can't figure out three paragraphs in from the way Bradley carefully positions her pronouns exactly what Lythande's big secret is, you're just not paying close enough attention. Although, having said that, I think the ending hit me as much more of a surprise the first time I read the story, some twenty five years ago.

So that's THIEVES' WORLD, and now that I really think of it, I believe I must have read at least one more volume in the series, because I can vaguely recall some sort of Andrew Offutt story about a weird cult that worshipped a god of spiders, and I'm pretty sure that was a Thieves' World story, and it sure isn't in this volume.

Maybe I'll keep an eye out for that one, too.

1 Comments:

At 11:00 AM , Anonymous Always Esteemed Scott said...

Coincidentally, I've been thinking recently about THIEVE'S WORLD myself recently. Like you, I remembered quite enjoying it when I first read it some twenty odd years ago.

I hadn't given that series much thought, but I do have several of Asprin's MYTH series, which I recently started reading to my 10 year old son, who really enjoyed them. The MYTH books (at least the earlier ones) are generally readable, and hey, my son liked them and that meant I got to read them to him, which is happening less and less frequently these days. But reading these books did get me to thinking about the THIEVE'S WORLD books as well. Funny that you would come across the first volume at the same time, and it was fun to read your take on the stories that I only vaguely remember.

I'll have to check our library and see if they have a copy.

 

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