Monday, September 29, 2008


Hey, it's been a while.

One of the best book series I remember reading was Thieves’ World edited by hubby and wife team Robert Lynn Asprin and Lynn Abbey.

This is the series that made me like rogues and thieves so much that I almost exclusively played them as characters in D&D (yeah, inabutan ko pa D&D ni Gygax before we switched to AD&D, still can’t make heads or tails of fourth ed rules though). Lots of my rogue characters have since ascended to become gods of death and destruction but the memory of imagining their blades slip unawares into mighty foes still gets me nostalgic. Ah, Moreau Nightshade, praised be yer dark name.

Anyway, TW back then smacked to me of being the coolest thing since the Nintendo Family Computer -- which sat very close to sliced bread, mind. While I thought I was just easily impressed as a teen, it proves that the idea of TW still is a thing of beauty and groundbreaking magnificence in the genre up to now.

This is where I learned that fantasy need not be safe or peopled by goody two shoe knights and paladins for story balance. This is how I learned that fantasy and transgressive fiction could be comfortable bedmates while sharing illegal pharmaceuticals. In TW fantasy could be wasak AND cool.

TW is basically it’s twelve books with three books each per major plot arch set in the city of Sanctuary, with the more popular nickname of Thieves’ World or The Maze. As you can probably tell from its name it’s a pretty dangerous city. People get mugged and killed on a daily basis. The garbage collectors routinely gather dead bodies in the morning. Strength in arms or magic is the only assurance of safety – sometimes not even then).

Actually, it reminds me a lot of Metro Manila. Even now I imagine the Bazaar as Quiapo, the red light district as Malate and the Governor’s Palce as a more fortified Malcanang. Maybe only a third world country can accurately mimic Sanctuary’s squalor and eloquence?

It had four major selling points:

One, it was a shared-world series where a bunch of high caliber fantasy writers got together and played what-if with a cast of characters, a gamut of godly pantheons, city institutions, criminal organizations, territories, companies, police and military, guilds and whatever else it took to get a city like Sanctuary to actually run with the semblance of a royally mandated civil government. The fact that the authors shared characters and did what they wanted to with them (within editorial limits, of course) and the ensuing events becoming the basis of future books still smacks of major audacity to me.

Talk about editorial jurisdiction (No, you can’t do that because there ARE no sewers to speak of, dummy). Talk about fights among writers (Tell me you didn’t just say you’re going to kill my avatar warlord with a bread knife?!). Talk about the expansive potential, baby (A dozen heads are better than one). Of course, it probably helped immensely that the editors had degrees in medieval history and that the people who created the godly pantheons and the city also have apt backgrounds in religion, sociology and urban planning.

Two, the writers that they conscripted to write the stories of Sanctuary are some pretty heavy names in the field. Lemme see, they got John Brunner, CJ Cherry, Andre Offut, Diana Paxson, Janet Morris, Diane Duane and even Philip Jose Farmer to name a few. You can probably tell that the stories in the series are never of the average variety. Oh, did I say they got Philip Jose Farmer?

Three, they had the coolest characters and settings in the city. Any fantasy series that’s got a bar called The Vulgar Unicorn (oooh, phallic AND fantastique!), a cocksure thief named Hanse Shadowspawn, a nearly immortal warlord named Tempus Thales, an incestuous mercenary band called the Stepsons, a beautiful vampire witch called Ischade and a fecund war god called Vashanka has got loads of grit going for it. The fact that they made a RPG out of it means the setting and story canon was rich enough to take in all comers and fans.

Fourth was the art. Will you just look at the paintings by Gary Ruddell? That shit gets your imagination all aspark. I never thought basilisks could be that magnificent and terrible. I never thought magical combat could be as beautiful as a lightning storm. It seems that the painter also did work for lots of other sci-fi and fantasy books but has since turned to gallery work. Even his exhibit stuff is worthy of praise. Just check out the paintings “Litany Against Fear 1 and 2” below.

Wow. To think Asprin and Abbey created this way back in 1978. While they did complete the 12 books series now known as the Thieves’ World canon, they divorced by the mid-1980s and the whole thing fell apart like their marriage. In any case, after 2002 Lynn Abbey (who apparently got editorial proprietorship for TW after the divorce proceedings) decided to tie up loose strings with a novel to wipe the slate clean and then start with new anthologies containing new characters. There have also been a number of spin-off novels and a comics series since the end of the 12 original books.

I never got to collect all the 12 books but, re-reading the stories now, I find layers, subtleties and stuff I just plain overlooked as a teen hiding in plain sight. I’m now trying to find the rest of the books I missed to complete my collection. I now appreciate just how brave the editors were, just how much of genius the series is and how influential it is to me.

~ 30