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Literature / Liavek

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A Shared Universe anthology series edited by Will Shetterly and Emma Bull. The other contributors included, among others, Steven Brust, Pamela Dean, Charles de Lint, John M. Ford, Nancy Kress, Megan Lindholm, Alan Moore, Caroline Stevermer, Walter Jon Williams, Gene Wolfe, Patricia C. Wrede, and Jane Yolen. The series begun with an eponymous book in 1985, followed by four more anthologies. A couple of individual Liavek stories have also appeared in other venues.

Liavek is a city-state with both a fairly detailed magic system and technology on the edge of the Industrial Age- for example, there are railroads, but no factories.

Liavekan magic is based on the concept of "birth luck", inherent magic that most people can use only on their birthdays, and then only during the hours that correspond to the time their mother spent in labor. In order to become a magician, a person must put their magic into an object, a process called investiture. If they succeed, they are able to practice magic as long as their luck object is nearby and isn't destroyed. If they fail, they die.

Magicians have to reinvest their magic every year. If their luck object is destroyed, they're Brought Down to Normal until their next birthday. If it's destroyed on their "ill-luck time", the day of the year opposite their birthday, they're Brought Down to Normal permanently.

All spells come undone on the birthday of the magician who created them. Permanently magical objects do exist, but they're extremely rare, since the magician has to sacrifice their magic in order to create one, and if it's destroyed during their lifetime, they die.

This series provides examples of:

  • Affectionate Parody: Jane Yolen's "The True Tale of Count Dashif's Demise" from book 5 is an Affectionate Parody of Steven Brust's four Count Dashif stories.
  • All There in the Manual: Or rather, All There In The Appendixes. The first two appendixes to Book One contain information ranging from geography, food, and politeness to the complexities of magical medicine, as well as descriptions of two more sentient species than actually show up in the books.
  • Almighty Janitor: Elmutt the garbage-picker has one of the most powerful magical gifts in the series— he's a for-real Reality Warper. He's a garbage-picker because he likes being a garbage-picker; it's useful work which he's good at, takes him to interesting places, and results in him meeting interesting people.
  • Alternative Calendar: Liavek uses a calendar based very closely on the French Revolutionary calendar. (In-story, it's said to be an import from Tichen- probably as a way to explain why a place where it never snows has a month called "Snow".)
  • Amazing Technicolor Population: Queen Brinte in Deleon's first play is bright blue, and this is vital to the plot. (We are not informed how it is vital to the plot, however.)
  • Animal Eye Spy: Discussed in "The Green Cat"; the Magician notes that arranging to see and hear what an animal sees and hears is easy, but being able to understand as one would if one were really present (instead of only getting what filters through the animal's understanding) requires considerable effort.
  • Big, Screwed-Up Family: The Benedicti family. Oh holy blue chipmunk, the Benedicti family.
  • Blessed with Suck: The titular magical artifact in "Cenedwine Brocade" protects its owner from harm, but does this by deflecting any attack from them — possibly onto the people or objects nearby. This can result in people getting hurt or killed, or just worried that they would be if they don't avoid the brocade's owner... which makes life rather difficult for said owner. On top of that, it's a Clingy MacGuffin that can only be disposed of in certain narrowly-defined circumstances, so the owner can't even get rid of it quickly once its shortcomings become apparent.
  • Blue-and-Orange Morality: Several of the Liavekan religions are this. Liavek's most prominant religion, the Way of the Twin Forces, involves a balance between good and evil- in some interpretations, choosing one or the other is undesirable, while in others the important thing is to pick a level of goodness/badness and stick with it. The Church of Truth, prominant enough that one of its priests becomes a co-regent for a child ruler at one point, has as its stated goal the destruction of reality. Which various members of the Church- including the eventual co-regent- had tried to carry out in the series proper. And of course, there's also the House of Responsible Life, apparently a minor but respected sect whose members are united by their desire to commit suicide (but only once they've divested themselves of any and all worldly ties, of course).
  • Brought Down to Normal: Any wizard whose luck object is destroyed. If it's during their ill-luck period (the time opposite in the year to their birth hours) it's permanent; otherwise, they can restore their powers on their next birthday. In the latter case, a very skilled wizard can still work magic for the few minutes each day that correspond to their birth. Trav, L'Fertti, and Quard can do this. Wizards may also choose to stop renewing their powers each year: for example, Thrae, the head of the Desert Mouse theater company, gave up practicing magic because she had more and more trouble investing her luck each year.
  • Cast Incest: invoked All the time in the Desert Mouse company. For example, Deleon and Aelim as Queen Brinte and her daughter in the play in "The Last Part of the Tragical History of Acrilat".
  • Cats Have Nine Lives: A common superstition in Liavek. In the case of at least some cats, it's literally true.
  • Chekhov's Gunman: A certain garbage picker puts in an appearance in one of the later Count Dashif stories. If you don't know what's going on, the story still makes sense... but if you recognize Elmutt, that scene seals Dashif's fate.
  • A Child Shall Lead Them: The current Levar (ruler of Liavek), Tazli Ifino iv Larwin, is eleven years old in the first volume.
  • Clingy MacGuffin: The magical garment in "Cenedwine Brocade". It can't be lost, stolen, or sold. It is possible to gamble it away, but only in a contest that requires skill as well as luck — if it's left purely to luck, the brocade's magic will interfere to keep it with the current owner.
  • Cloud Cuckoo Lander: Silvertop. Snake calls him a "featherbrain". Somehow he still manages to be a fairly powerful magician. Given what the spells the readers are told about look like, his investiture must be ...quite interesting.
  • Color-Coded for Your Convenience: Most of the religions in the setting are identified by color- for example, the Way of the Twin Forces is also the Red Faith and its clergy the Red Priests, and the House of Responsible Life are the Green Priests.
  • Comic-Book Adaptation: A Hypothetical Lizard got a four-issue one by Avatar Press.
  • Conditional Powers: Birth luck is only available in one's birth hours. Invested luck is only available while one is within three paces of the object in which it was invested, and will be lost if the object is destroyed or otherwise significantly altered.
  • Crosscast Role: Several actors, since Liavekan theatre doesn't divide roles by gender.
  • The Dragon: Dashif is this to Resh, although Resh is neither evil enough nor plot-important enough to be the Big Bad of the series.
  • Everyone Can See It: Most of the trouble in "A Well-Made Plan" originates with Silvertop wanting Thyan to like him more; an incredulous Snake and Koseth have to explain to him that she has been in love with him for ages.
  • Exact Words: Be very careful asking Elmutt a question.
  • Fantasy Contraception: Worrynot, which can be eaten raw or brewed as a tea, is an infallible contraceptive for men, women, and cats. Tastes awful, though.
  • Fantasy Gun Control: Averted, mostly. There are guns, and although they're said to be unreliable, most people shoot what they're aiming at. However, it's entirely possible to use magic to prevent guns from working, as established in the very first story.
  • Forced Transformation:
    • The S'Rian god Rikiki was cursed to take the form of a small blue chipmunk. He retained his powers, and still grants boons for any S'Rian who has a bowl of nuts to spare — and, more importantly, the time and patience now required to drive a new idea into his chipmunk-sized brain.
    • The Change Price, the penalty for serious transgressions against Rikiki, involves being turned into a hazelnut for a period proportional to the seriousness of the offense, commonly A Year and a Day. (Being god-magic, it's not subject to the ends-on-the-wizard's-birthday rule.)
  • "Freaky Friday" Flip: In "A Well-Made Plan", Silvertop's spell accidentally switches his mind with Koseth's...the day that Koseth is kidnapped by old enemies. Bad move all the way around.
  • Gender Is No Object: Liavek is like this, and possibly Tichen and Ka Zhir as well. The exceptions so far are Ombaya (matriarchy) and one Farlander country that has an all-male military.
  • Good Scars, Evil Scars: In "The Fortune Maker", the character with the long crooked scar on his face turns out to be the villain.
  • Happily Married: Verdialos and Etriae.
  • He Is Not My Boyfriend: Thyan claims something in this line regarding the Cloud Cuckoo Lander magician Silvertop, unconvincingly.
  • Helping Hands: Marik One-Hand's other hand.
  • High Priest: Resh, otherwise known as "His Scarlet Eminence", is this for Liavek's most prominent religion, as well as being the regent for the city's child-ruler.
  • High Turnover Rate: Jane Yolen's "The Ballad of the Quick Levars" describes a year in which a large number of Levars took the throne and died, leading to a law that no Levar who'd reigned for less than a day could pass the position to their heirs.
  • If I Can Only Move: Granny Carry at the climax of "Ancient Curses".
  • I Have Many Names:
    • Granny Carry is known by a variety of names by different people, most of which are abbreviations or distortions of her true name.
    • Liavek's greatest (or at least best known) wizard is known by most people only as the Magician. His actual friends call him Trav. He also has another name that he keeps closely guarded, because anybody who learned it would be able to find out far too much about him.
  • In Case You Forgot Who Wrote It: The comic based on A Hypothetical Lizard is called Alan Moore's Hypothetical Lizard.
  • In Name Only: Alan Moore's "A Hypothetical Lizard" makes only a few tangential references to the Liavek setting.
  • Life-or-Limb Decision: How the legendary wizard Marik One-Hand came by his name.
  • Light Is Not Good: The priests of the Church of Truth dress in white. The truth they preach is that the world is a cruel snare, and at least some of them actively seek to destroy it.
  • Literal Genie: The protagonist of "The Green Cat" seeks the assistance of a wizard, and is given precisely what she asked for with results entirely opposite to what she wanted. Verges on Jackass Genie, since although the wizard's interpretation of the request is justifiable, he knew perfectly well what result she wanted, and there was nothing stopping him interpreting the request in the way she meant it if he'd wanted to.
  • The Little Shop That Wasn't There Yesterday: The entire street of Wizards' Row may or may not be in its usual location (or anywhere else) depending on whether the wizards want business just then. No one can ever find it on a holiday.
  • Love Triangle: In "Two Houses in Saltigos", Aelim is in love with Deleon who is in love with Calla, who is in love with no one but chooses to give the impression that she is in the hopes of redirecting Deleon. Deleon, profoundly screwed-up as he is, eventually offers a relationship to Aelim because he does not love him, and Aelim takes him up on it. In later stories, they seem to be doing all right.
  • Mad God: Acrilat. Fortunately its influence is limited to Acrivain, and its efforts to enter Liavek are repulsed by Granny Carry.
  • Magic A Is Magic A: The whole "birth luck" system, it's very complicated, but quite consistent.
  • Mexican Standoff: Features at the climax of one of the Count Dashif stories.
  • Miles to Go Before I Sleep: The House of Responsible Life is a religion built around this trope. They seek to rid themselves of all earthly reponsibilities before actually killing themselves. Very few of them succeed. The only Green Priests who actually get around to committing suicide in the story are Verdialos and Etriae. Nerissa seems to be moving out of this trope as the series ends.
  • Never Mess with Granny: Granny Carry.
  • No Ontological Inertia: Spells last only until the magician's luck is released, either on the magician's birthday or when his or her luck object is destroyed. When they're undone, things generally go back to how they were- or even worse. For this reason, mixing magic with medical practice is not recommended.
  • Odd Job Gods: Bree Amal, Goddess of Keepers of Disorderly Houses, and Ghologhosh, God of Small Curses. (Rikiki is once referred to as the god of chipmunks, but he probably isn't.)
  • Oh, My Gods!: "Kosker and Pharn!" (whatever they are), "By the Red Faith!". Also "By the Levar's future tits," and "Rikiki's nuts." (That last probably refers to literal nuts, although it's still a Double Entendre.)
  • Omnicidal Maniac: The priests of the Church of Truth believe that the world is a cruel trap, which even death is not a release from because you'll just be reincarnated. At least some of them actively seek to destroy the world and "free" everybody.
  • P.O.V. Sequel: Twice, although both were story pairs in the same volume. "Mad God" retells the events of the Benedicti family story "The Last Part of the Tragical History of Acrilat" from Granny Carry's point of view, and "Act of Trust"/"Show of Faith" are likewise the same set of events from Dashif's and Jolesha's POV respectively.
  • Reality Subtext: invoked In-story example. In "The Last Part of the Tragical History of Acrilat", Deleon writes a play about a family that has a great deal in common with his own. The terrifying priest-queen is his mother, the poetry-reading and ineffective king his father, the younger royal siblings are himself and his favorite sister (different in personality from their templates because he was basing them partially on the actors he wanted to have play them), and two older royal siblings who represent the combined personal flaws of Deleon's two older brothers and three of his older sisters.
  • Really 700 Years Old: Despite the difficulties of using birth luck magic to preserve one's life (when by definition no spell lasts longer than a year, and anyone who creates a magical artifact loses their powers for good), a lot of the powerful magicians are several hundred years old, including Trav, Gogoaniskithli, the Ka'Riatha, and some of the Tichenese magicians as well. It can be accomplished in one of two ways: have a partner you trust enough to maintain your youth during your luck period (Trav and Gogo prove to be doing this and she still does it for him after they break up); or you can use someone else's artifact of immortality.
  • Secret Diary: There's a weird example in Book 3. One of the more sympathetic Benedictis steals her sister's diary in the hopes of finding out why she's been acting so weird lately, only to find that it's written in a language she doesn't know. She takes it to an older relative for translation, and said relative refuses with great indignation. Up until she got that reaction, it didn't occur to her that what she was doing was questionable at all.
  • Shout-Out: The depiction of the Levar's chief advisor, the high priest Resh, owes a fair amount to the popular cultural version of Louis XIII's chief advisor Cardinal Richelieu.
  • Something Only They Would Say: In "A Well-Made Plan", the "Freaky Friday" Flip-ed Koseth shows up at his front door and tries to convince his butler that it's really him. The butler asks what what his luck object is, and Koseth explodes in fury, refusing to reveal it, particularly since he'd never told the butler in the first place. This is the response that the butler was looking for, and he gladly lets him in.
  • Story-Breaker Power: If you ask Elmutt a question, an answer to that question will become true. By the end of the story he stars in, the answer that becomes true is always the most benevolent. For obvious reasons, his existence is ignored almost completely for the rest of the series. Of course, if the person asking the question isn't careful with the wording, or doesn't know what's going on...
    Dashif: Will she kill me quickly or slowly?
  • Sword Cane: Granny Carry's walking stick is one.
  • Throw It In:
    • invoked Deleon's writing process, apparently. In an effort to control who is cast as the evil queen (It Makes Sense in Context), he promises to make her bright blue. Then he has to make this integral to the plot, so the company manager won't throw it out...
    • invoked More dramatically, during a previous production Deleon decides, on his own initiative and in the middle of opening night, to play his character as being in love at first sight with Aelim's character. Aelim runs with it, and the two of them start a real relationship during the intermission.
  • Uncoffee: It greatly resembles coffee, being brewed from beans and all, but it's called "kaf".
  • The Unfavorite: Nerissa Benedicti.
  • Variant Chess: "Shah" seems to be chess with a different name and different names for all the pieces; "cylindrical shah" is a variant in which the players pretend that the board is a cylinder with the two sides touching — meaning that the player can move a piece "off" one side and "onto" the other. There's a complicated incident where some characters get stuck as the pieces in a game of Human Chess between gods, and realize partway through that they're playing cylindrical shah, not the usual version.
  • What Kind of Lame Power Is Heart, Anyway?: Nerissa is able to see what her cat sees. Since she has no other power over the cat, and since it is a perfectly ordinary cat in all other respects, she doesn't find this very useful.
  • A Year and a Day: Penalties for transgressing the rules policed by the Guardian of the S'Rian Gods tend to be applied for this length of time.