Stepping Into the Shared World of Robert Asprin’s Thieves’ World
by Bill Ward
“There are philosophers who argue that there is no such thing as evil qua evil; that, discounting spells (which of course relieve an individual of responsibility), when a man commits an evil deed he is a victim himself, the slave of his progeniture and nurturing. Such philosophers might profit by studying Sanctuary.”
-from Joe Haldeman’s “Blood Brothers”
Robert Asprin’s Thieves’ World is the granddaddy of the shared-world anthology; its success can be seen by its numerous sequels (the original series ran to twelve anthologies in ten years, plus a few spin-off novels, and was then revived for a brief run in the early 2000s) as well as related matter such as an extensive line of RPG supplements. This is all in addition to, of course, the many similarly themed anthologies that came out in homage or imitation to the original. In his afterward to the first book, “The Making of Thieves’ World,” Asprin (perhaps best known for his humorous fantasy Myth Adventures series) describes the shared world idea as a way for many authors to write fantasy without first having to each come up with their own worlds. Imagine, Asprin says, if Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser inhabited the same world as Conan, or if Elric and Kane opposed one another at the head of rival armies. It’s a great, fun idea, and it works well, and it certainly attracted a wide panoply of science fiction and fantasy writers over the decade in which it ran.
Thieves’ World is the first book in the series, from which the whole derives its name. It centers on the town of Sanctuary, a rats’ nest of rogues and hotbed of skulduggery, a conquered city on the edge of empire rife with competing factions and conflicting religions. It’s a fairly standard fantasy backdrop, at least in this first installment, but it’s also a consistent and well-realized one replete with just enough world-building style details to make the place come alive without the danger of the setting taking over from the plot. Or, more importantly in this case, overshadowing the cast of unique characters—and this last is where Thieves’ World really shines.
Each author in the anthology has created his own character, and the book contains a larger-than-life cast of scoundrels, magicians, street folk, and thieves. The ne’er-do-well minstrel Cappen Varra, the cursed magician Enas Yorl, ruthless crimelord and ex-gladiator Jubal, ageless madame Myrtis, and mysterious Lythande, his forehead marked with a glowing blue star that burns with his anger or agitation — just a few of the most prominent personalities of Sanctuary. And while a story might focus on only a few of these characters, they turn up repeatedly again and again in the background of different tales. Indeed, this is part of the fun of the shared world, as different authors handle each other’s characters a bit differently, and even whole scenes from one story may be repeated in another with a twist in perspective. A nice touch, and one that lends the stories the feeling that many lives are brushing up against one another and interconnecting in the world of Sanctuary.
As for the stories themselves, ranging from short story to novella length, some stand out more than others. John Brunner opens the anthology with “Sentences of Death,” a clever piece centering around apprentice translator Jarveena and her employer, an opportunistic book merchant and scribe. When a magical scroll falls into their hands they decide to profit from it as best they can, and set off a chain of events that involves a strange magician, a foiled assassination attempt, and the fulfillment of Jarveena’s lifelong thirst for revenge. In Poul Anderson’s “The Gate of Flying Knives,” we have a more traditional sword-and-sorcery tale, in which the rogue Cappen Verra must venture into another world to rescue his love — and where he discovers that a certain slight-of-hand can be worth more than any sword or spell. In Joe Haldeman’s “Blood Brothers” the odious One-Thumb, a man confident in his continued existence because of a magician’s curse of damnation on anyone that should ever dare to slay him, meets his comeuppance in a most unusual and ingenious way. In Asprin’s own “The Price of Doing Business,” shrewd operator Jubal discovers just how differently those who don’t share his ruthlessly practical outlook see the world, and finds himself confounded first by a child, and then by one of the Emperor’s own elite guardsmen.
Overall the anthology is a solid mix of stories from writers of varied sensibilities at different points of their career. But the book is cohesive, the styles complimentary, and the fun firmly at center stage. I can understand how it started something big, especially as it was released before the modern fantasy explosion, and I only wish there was a comparable series today showcasing a similar broad array of talent against a shared world backdrop. The Thieves’ World series would go on to attract an array of fantasy (and SF writers), such as David Drake, Janet Morris, Lynn Abbey, C.J. Cherryh, Vonda N. McIntyre, and even A.E. Van Vogt. Whether a similar new series would ever emerge in the landscape of modern publishing is debatable, but in the meantime, there is plenty in the original Thieves’ World series to satisfy the cravings of sword-and-sorcery fans. The first three Thieves’ World anthologies (Thieves World, Tales From the Vulgar Unicorn, and Shadows of Sanctuary) are collected in an omnibus hardback entitled Sanctuary for those of you that want to hit the used book market. Recently, in 2020, ebook omnibus/collections of the original Thieves’ World anthologies are making the series available to a whole new generation of readers—look for the cleverly titled Thieves’ World Collection Volume 1 to read the first three anthologies electronically.