Classic Review – Thieves’ World edited by Robert Lynn Asprin and Lynn Abbey

Classic Review is a feature where I pull a book that is over 20 years old from my collection and re-read it, then review it…


Format:  paperback, Ace Edition, 1982

Pages:  308 (including the editor’s addendum)

Reading Time:  about 6 hours

There seems to be an abundance of thieves and assassins in modern fantasy, but in the 80s there was little room for these types of characters as Epic Fantasy dominated the scene. One of the exceptions was Thieves’ World. Created by Robert Lynn Asprin and Lynn Abbey, the concept was simple: create a shared world, in which authors were free to use each others’ characters in their story. The setting was Sanctuary, a city populated by crime lords, thieves, wizards, ladies of the night, squabbling priests, and brutal guards. Eight authors contributed stories for the first volume of this shared anthology, resulting in wonderfully diverse story lines, with each author centering their story around a memorable character.

The current state of affairs has Prince Kadakithis, or Prince Kittycat as the locals call him, arriving in Sanctuary to “clean up the armpit of the Empire.” The Prince is a member of the Rankan Empire nobility, which is at odds with those who favor the old kingdom (and gods) of Ilsig. The Prince is attended by his personal bodyguard called Hell Hounds. But the Prince has an agenda of his own, and to everyone’s surprise, they may be underestimating the resolve of man who they consider a fop…

At the end of the review I’ll have comments on the book as a whole, but first you’ll find a brief synopsis of each story; these tales vary in length from 23 to 53 pages. Most authors weave a fast-paced story bereft of intricate details. Such are the tales of a thief’s world…

Sentences of Death by John Brunner: here Brunner plots a story about a young woman who has been abused at a young age and is in the employment of a scribe. It is a tale of a magic scroll that weaves a spell of death, an attempt on the Prince, and revenge. However, this young woman mainly exists to introduce us to the character of Enas Yorl, a cursed, shape-changing mage. I would have preferred to read more about Yorl, who would be a much more striking character with more pages and detail devoted to him.

The Face of Chaos by Lynn Abbey: a new author at the time that this book was released, Abbey gives us a tale centering around Illyra, a fortune-teller who gets caught up in trying to avert a virgin’s sacrifice to bless a newly-constructed temple. We are introduced to the gods of the land and how they are at war with each other. This is the first story where the author uses other writers’ characters.

The Gate of Flying Knives by Poul Anderson: In this story we are introduced Cappen Vera, a minstral who has recently lost his meal ticket. Illyra features prominently here as Vera seeks to find his lost love, Danlis, with the fortune-teller’s help. We are first introduced to the Maze, a dangerous slum, and The Vulgar Unicorn, where scoundrels go to buy and sell information and make contacts. Vera’s quest to reunite with his love bring in other writers’ characters such as Jamie the Red, One Thumb, Hanse (Shadowspawn), and Enas Yorl. The minstral makes a daring raid through a portal in a temple in his rescue attempt, but the results are bittersweet. Though constantly changing tenses, Anderson embraces an adventurous spirit and even throws in a little poetry. This is probably my second favorite story in the book, and it is also the longest.

Shadowspawn by Andrew Offutt: Young Hanse, also known as Shadowspawn, is enlisted to steal the Prince’s rod of authority and discredit him. When the traitors try to double-cross Hanse, all hell breaks loose. Offutt weaves a light, deft tale of betrayal and uneasy alliances, and this story is easily my favorite of the bunch.

The Price of Doing Business by Robert Lynn Asprin: Jubal is a former gladiator-turned-crimelord who deals in the black market. In a moment of betrayal, Jubal nearly finds what the price of doing business is in Sanctuary, and discusses his choices in a philosophical battle with a Hell Hound. Asprin does a good job of explaining character motivations in this tale.

Blood Brothers by Joe Haldeman: This is a story about One Thumb, the crooked bartender at The Vulgar Unicorn. Some of his merchandise goes missing, and he attempts to retrieve it, only to fall into the middle of a sorcerous feud. I have to say the ending left me a bit puzzled and put off, and this is probably the worst story in the anthology. It’s also the shortest.

Myrtis by Christine DeWees: Myrtis is the proprietor of the Aphrodisia House, a pleasure house in the red lamp district that services the men of Sanctuary. When the Prince comes up with a plan to close the brothel houses, Myrtis is forced to hatch a plan that will counteract the Prince’s wishes. DeWees displays a deft hand and elegant prose; though having very little to do with thieves, Myrtis is by far the most well-written tale of the anthology, a great accomplishment for a novice writer.

The Secret of the Blue Star by Marion Zimmer Bradley: Lythande is a mercenary/magician who becomes embroiled in a sorecerous duel. For on Lythande’s head blazes the blue star, a symbol of Lythande’s order, and symbolizing a secret. If the secret were discovered, Lythande would lose all wizardly powers. And another magician seeks to learn this secret of Lythande’s. With a clever writing style and a flair for the dramatic, Bradley deftly weaves a tale with a reveal that will surprise some, but that other readers may correctly anticipate. A good short story, although having little to do with thieves except for a brief appearance by Cappen Vera.

Some of the stories seem a bit light on thievery and skullduggery…it is mainly the setting of Sanctuary, itself being a respute for such activities, that lends the book its name. Character voices change from story to story, which the editor explains as a difference in the perspective of the storyteller. For instance, Lythande may appear quite different in various stories, but that can be attributed to the difference in, say, a story told by the cursed sorcerer Enas Yorl, as to one told by the cynical thief Shadowspawn…characters have different perspectives, and see the world – and other characters – differently from each other. And it’s the imaginative characters that give these stories their appeal…characters in later books in the series don’t quite measure up.

In conclusion there are a few gems here, but anyone looking for the kind of thieves you’d find in a novel from Lynch or Weeks will be disappointed. These are light-hearted tales, with little emphasis on character detail and heavy doses of tongue-in-cheek humor. Looking forward to the next book in the series, Tales From the Vulgar Unicorn, things start to turn a little more serious and a little darker. If you like anthologies and don’t need to read dark, serious tales all the time, you might enjoy a few of these stories. Considering the age of the book, you should be able to acquire it cheaply at a good used book store, as I doubt many libraries would carry this. The point is, don’t spend a lot of money to acquire it, as there are several newly-released anthologies out there that are probably far superior to this.

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