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Literature / Thieves' World

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Thieves' World is a dark urban fantasy Shared Universe created by Robert Asprin in 1978 and mostly focused on the city of Sanctuary. It drew in authors like Poul Anderson, John Brunner, Andrew J. Offutt, C. J. Cherryh, Janet Morris and Marion Zimmer Bradley (with the first Lythande story) to contribute, and generated a buttload of books (12 short story compilations, 8 official novels, some graphic novel adaptations of the compilations and roleplaying adaptations from the likes of Chaosium and FASA) before it went on hiatus in 1989.

Then in 2002 Lynn Abbey published a new novel in the universe, Sanctuary which re-started the series several decades later. Two additional anthologies were published, as well as D20 books from Green Ronin.

The stories by in large focus on the poorer and nastier inhabitants of Sanctuary, a desert town on the edge of the Rankan Empire. It is implied that a good amount of the conflict in many of the stories is the result of the struggle between the warlike Rankan gods and the Ilsigi ones they displaced when they took over. Later in the series, the city is reconquered by a new group - the snake-worshipping Beysib - which adds another faction to the divine squabbling already going on.


Thieves' World embodies the following tropes:

  • Adjective Animal Alehouse: The Wretched Hive city of Sanctuary has the Vulgar Unicorn, Golden Lizard and Diving Bird taverns. Several vague descriptions of the Vulgar Unicorn's sign are given, including "...that animal improbably engaging itself" and similar.
  • The Archmage: Hazard-class mages.
  • Art Initiates Life: A great mage gave one of the recurring characters this ability but most of the time it proved rather inconvenient.
  • Attack Reflector: Story "Vashanka's Minion" in Tales from the Vulgar Unicorn. The Hell Hound named Tempus has a magical sword that can cause ranged weapons (such as a magical enemy-seeking boomerang) to return and kill their user.
  • Blessed with Suck: Tempus, whose role as the avatar of the storm god makes him immortal but not invulnerable. No matter how horribly he's injured he will heal eventually suffering all the while. The same god also made him incapable of "taking a woman in gentleness".
    • That's a mix of divine contract and being cursed by a mage. Along with his sister.
  • Conditional Powers: The powers of the Blue Star Adepts require them to keep a Dark Secret about themselves and they lose their powers if that secret becomes known.
  • Constrained Writing: In "The Secret of the Blue Star", Marion Zimmer Bradley carefully tried to avoid referring to the gender of the magician Lythande to conceal the Twist Ending that Lythande is a woman. She did slip up at one point, however.
    Lythande drew from the folds of his robe a small pouch containing a quantity of sweet-smelling herbs, rolled them into a blue-grey leaf, and touched his ring to spark the roll alight. He drew on the smoke, which drifted up sweet and greyish.
  • Crapsack Only by Comparison: In "Looking for Satan", Sanctuary is seen as especially awful by a group of people who come from a Utopia.
  • Crapsack World: Sanctuary is not a nice place to live unless you are very rich. If you are very rich, most of the rest of the population want to kill you and take your stuff. And they may try — unless some rival will manage to get rid of you before, that is.
  • Death by Depower: Any Blue Star Adept worth the name will quickly accumulate enemies and wind up being followed around by at least one death curse that he must constantly ward off with his own power. Any time in the series that a Blue Star Adept is shown being stripped of his powers, death follows immediately.
  • Desperate Object Catch: The sorcerous globe Niko tosses to Randal.
  • Magic from Technology: Kemren the Purple Mage with his mana generating waterwheels.
  • Morality Adjustment: Jubal, after realizing it's his own fault that he got the crap beaten out of him and then had healing Gone Horribly Wrong, was still a crimelord, but more wise, considerate and even willing to spend efforts for common benefit, e.g. setting Chenaya's bright, but dislocated brain straight or the "Envoy of Sanctuary" project.
  • Mugging the Monster: Wess vs. Bauchle Mayne and an accomplice in the story "Looking For Satan" in Book 3 Shadows of Sanctuary. Ischade due to her curse seeks such incidents.
  • Obfuscating Stupidity: Prince Kadakithis was nicknamed "Kittycat" soon after he arrived and publically expressed a naive intention to clean up the city but it didn't take long for Sanctuary to beat the naivete out of him. Afterwards he chooses to pretend he's still a weak-willed wide-eyed aristocratic dilettante. He never stops trying to improve the city; he just gets more subtle and realistic about it.
  • Power at a Price: Magic-users inevitably turn out to be either cursed or paying a price. Sometimes bordering on Blessed with Suck.
  • Psychic Powers: At least three different traditions - S'Danzo seers (precognition), Bandaran adepts (Aura Vision and other sensory powers, self control) and barbarians (body enhancements like Super Speed and other useful tricks).
  • Reassigned to Antarctica: The governor of Sanctuary is the Emperor's idealistic half-brother, sent there to get him out of reach of any political conspirators wanting to make use of him.
  • Royal Brat - Generous, powerful, clever, beautiful... and extremely immature in some respects. Divine blessing from such a young age spoiled her even more than her high status possibly could.
  • The Trope Without a Title: The Ilsigi war god is referred to only as Him-whom-we-do-not-name, ostensibly because the Ilsig are a peaceful people.


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