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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.

Not to be confused with the term for the Russian Underworld during the Tsarist era (Воровской Мир Vorovskoy Mir in Russian).

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.
  • Anti-Hero: As if the title didn't tell you, many pov characters in the setting are thieves and cutthroats who are mainly trying to survive in the Crapsack World and are Only in It for the Money.
  • The Archmage: Several characters could be considered this, but it's difficult to tell because different authors in the series use different ranking methods for mages. However, Hazard-class mages generally seem to have archmage-level power, while Enas Yorl is even more powerful than that - even if he can't break the Involuntary Shapeshifting curse on him.
  • 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.
  • Breakout Character: Tempus Thales is easily the most recognizable character in the Thieves World universe and he has his own series of short stories.
  • The City Narrows: The complex network of streets and alleys called "the Maze" is dominated by thieves and killers; the City Guard won't even go there, although the five "Hell Hounds" sent with Prince Kadakithis are more than confident to do so.
  • 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. Also the city guards are little more than armed thugs that are more likely to beat people up and take their stuff than help them, and their commander is none other than that bundle of joy that is Tempus.
  • Dark Fantasy: Thieves World's setting is this mixed with Low Fantasy of the gloomy towns and dirty looking Anti-Hero protagonist variety.
  • 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.
  • Elite Mooks: The Sacred Band of the Stepsons, Tempus' personal warband of elite soldiers.
  • Fantasy Pantheon: Fantasy Pantheon turf wars, no less!
  • Good Thing You Can Heal: Tempus, as part of his Blessed with Suck.
  • Have You Seen My God?: Most of the Ilsigi gods, most of the time.
  • Immortality Hurts: 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.
  • Jerk Ass Gods: Most of them, most of the time.
  • Malevolent Masked Men: The agents of Jubal, Sanctuary's resident crimelord, wear hawk masks.
  • Magic from Technology: Kemren the Purple Mage with his mana generating waterwheels.
  • Low Fantasy: The scope of the setting is quite limited and grounded for the fantasy genre. Most of the stories take place in a single Wretched Hive populated by corrupt guards, morally ambiguous criminals and dark cults.
  • 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.
  • Odd Friendship: Tempus Thales has surprisingly friendly interactions with the master thief Shadowspawn.
  • One-Man Army: Tempus Thales is a formidable and nearly untouchable fighter who can kill hordes of enemies by himself, partly due to being the chosen champion of the Rankan storm god.
  • Power at a Price: Magic-users inevitably turn out to be either cursed or paying a price. Sometimes bordering on Blessed with Suck.
  • Power Tattoo: All Blue Star Adepts have a large blue star tattooed on their forehead. The star is the center of their power; if their Secret is ever discovered, the power drains away and they become ordinary people.
  • Psychic Powers: At least three different traditions:
    • S'danzo seers are essentially fictional Gypsies, with all the powers usually ascribed to Gypsy fortunetellers.
    • Bandaran adepts have Aura Vision and other sensory powers, along with a magical level of self control
    • Barbarians have body enhancements like Super-Speed and other useful tricks.
  • Really 700 Years Old: Tempus Thales has been in the god Vashanka's service for centuries and he still looks like a handsome young man.
  • 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.
  • Ritual Magic: Many of the spells used by the various mages require ingredients and lengthy rituals. Even something as simple as throwing fireballs need at least a minute of chanting.
  • Royal Brat: Chenaya is 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.
  • Shared Universe: Various characters of the setting are the protagonists of their own series of short stories and novels.
  • Tarot Motifs: S'danzo seers often use a deck of cards that is basically a fictional version of standard Tarot cards.
  • 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.
  • Villain Protagonist: Tempus Thales in his own series of stories, usually written by Janet Morris.