Thieves are back. Possibly they never went away but were just being sneaky.
They’re a staple of fantasy fiction that goes back to its most influential roots (1), and recently there’s been a grand resurgence of books specifically showcasing thief leads.
(1) And I’m not qualified to go into the whole mythic archetype businss but, suffice to say, legendary tricksters and thieves show a basic character type that’s probably as old as stories themselves.
Putting my RPG hat on for a moment, but let’s make the grossly inaccurate simplification of three hero types – strength-based, wits-based and magic-based. Of these the warrior sorts are arguably the most prevalent and the most distinct from the other two. The warrior’s first recourse is threat, direct confrontation and violence. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t have other strings to his enormously overpowered bow, but he meets trouble head on – look at the majority of David Gemmell heroes – or Conan, for example. Conan outwits or outmanoeuvres a lot of opponents, but generally when their particular abilities mean that he can’t just stick a sword in their ear.
Magic heroes tend to shade somewhat into, usually, the thief part of the venn diagram. Magical heroes seldom resort to their magic in the first instance, and their magic is also generally less reliable than the warrior’s brawn (it has all sorts of limits, or the story would be very short and quite dull). Magic heroes therefore tend to borrow heavily from the thieves in solving problems with their wits (Ged from Earthsea, Kvothe from Name of the Wind (2)) and/or their lore and acquired knowledge (which is where they start to deviate from the thieves who tend to be brick ignorant about most higher things). Some of them also fall back on the inner warrior, with Elric as a prime example – but the key thing about a magic hero is that it’s the magic that defines him as a character. Whatever else he has, he is a wizard first and foremost, set apart from the host of muggles who, usually, regard him with suspicion. This archetype works perfectly well even if there is no magic at all – it’s the perception of the wizard that makes it (Merlin in Cornwell’s Arthurian series is a good one – is he magic, is he not, we just don’t know). But I’m basically now writing the wrong blog entry. Thieves, then.
(2) A very thiefy magician.
A thief’s first resort is his stealth and/or wits. The tricky, slippery thief often ends up in a fight, but seldom by choice and only when all else fails. There are some obvious and much-loved examples, but I’ll fling a couple of names out – Leiber’s Gray Mouser (3) from Lankhmar, and Tolkien’s Bilbo Baggins. Seriously – OK, his being labelled a ‘thief’ is some clumsy racial stereotyping from Gandalf that has tarred every diminutive fantasy character ever since (4) but Bilbo is a sneak and trickster born, and he deals with almost all of his problems by outthinking his opponents – trolls, Gollum – he even gets the dirt on Smaug.
(3) Yes, Mouser knows some magic, but it pretty much drops out of the books by the end of the first one.
(4) Yes, even Fly-kinden. But they’re tricksy, you see. Can’t trust them.
So, who are the new usual suspects? I have four of them to lead into the interview room in just a minute, but it’s worth noting that the genre is stepping beyond the stereotypical cutpurse and second story man. Traditionally, thieves steal by the fairly direct means of taking things without consent – whether from rich merchant’s houses or cursed temples (5). Where they are a supporting character, usually backing up the warrior, they provide lockpicking, comic relief and local knowledge, and occasionally death with pathos. Where they are the lead, generally, they defy vastly more powerful enemies and walk off with their loot. Finally, most fantasy thieves are urban – even if they leave their home city they are usually back.
(5) Possibly only once.
However: tonight on the couch with me and stealing my wallet are:
– Locke Lamora, from Scott Lynch’s The Lies of, well, Locke Lamora;
– Easie Demasco, from David Tallerman’s The Giant Thief;
– Drothe, from Douglas Hulick’s Among Thieves; and
– Warden, from Daniel Polansky’s The Straight Razor Cure.
All of these have the classic thief’s arsenal – they get through life by their wits, they resort to violence as a last resort rather than a first, and they defeat their enemies by being smarter, instead of faster or stronger. However, they’re all stepping away from the stock fantasy thief as seen in some earlier books, and a thousand D&D campaigns.
The first thing that really strikes me is that none of this new rogue’s gallery is actually the traditional fantasy thief. Locke is a con artist gulling the wealthy of their money with fantastically elaborate schemes, Easie is a thief, but far more of a roving rural type – something like Autolycus rather than the Gray Mouser (6) (8), Drothe is a professional informant, and Warden is a drug dealer by current trade. They also interact with the rest of the underworld quite differently – the traditional fantasy thief tends to live in a world where there is a Thieves’ Guild (and often just the one weirdly unified organisation – enough so that Pratchett has great fun with the idea in his earlier books) but is usually no friend of it, and tends to be a rogue thief (9), loner (or working with a single partner) and freelancer. Conversely, Locke has his own gang, and it meshes into an overall network of other gangs under a nominal leader, Easie’s world has no more of a guild than thieves who know other thieves (or at least we don’t see it), Drothe is an integral part of a large and organised gang, which is itself part of a complex and constantly shifting gang picture across his city. Warden is aggressively a freelancer, in a city where most vice is controlled by warring gangs.
(6) That’s Autolycus from The Winter’s Tale (7), not Xena.
(7) And that’s Shakespeare, not Helprin.
(8) Which I am constantly typing “The Grey Mauser” for some reason.
(9) Honestly not sure about the phrase “rogue thief”
Aside from Easie, however, they all maintain the thief’s traditional urban haunts, although the cities have moved on from the MGM Middle Ages that a lot of fantasy used to take place in – Lynch and Hulick’s cities have a definite rennaisance feel, and Polansky’s setting feels like a weird fantasy version of the 20’s/30’s crime scene, with ethnic gangs and a Great War in the recent past. In fact, as Warden himself is the equivalent of an ex-cop, and his story plays out far more like that of a PI than an actual criminal, there is a very pulp detective feel to the endeavour.
The other thing that caught my attention was the view of magic – and I think this reflects the changing attitude to magic across fantasy writing in general at the moment. Lankhmar was so full of magic you couldn’t lob a brick without hitting two gods and a dimension-travelling wizard, but there was more magic in the secondary world in those days, and we have entered an age where the mystical takes more of a back seat to the physical. Easie’s world has the fantastic without necessarily having the magical – there’s nothing overtly supernatural about the giant of the title for example. Magicians figure prominently in Locke’s life, to his detriment, but they have been reduced to money-minded, vindictive hirelings, with obvious parallels between their guild and the organisations of the thieves themselves (save that the thieves are far more congenial company). In The Straight Razor Cure (10) there are some serious wizards, but as in Locke’s world, magic does not command, but serves, and the plot includes references to a magician corps that acted as combined special forces/artillery during the war. Among Thieves has a slightly different angle – the world is more overtly magical, with an Empire run by an eternally reincarnating Emperor who’s going off his rocker generation by generation, but that sort of magic is for the high-ups – Drothe himself is no magician, but he knows and makes use of practitioners in the same way as he would do any specialist expert. Magic intruding on his world (and it’s a major plot point) is something he could live without.
(10) And frankly that is one of the best titles for a book I’ve seen in a long time.
Finally, there’s morality. Everyone knows that fantasy thieves, after all, have hearts of gold, and that their larceny always ends up serving the greater good. But that kind of Dick Van Dyke cheeky chirpy thief (usually a sidekick too) has also gone the way of all stereotypical things, and (again a representation of the current mores of fantasy) we’re left with a much more ambiguous tapestry. Locke is perhaps the closest – as a con man, after all, he robs from the rich (because there’s no point enacting elaborate confidence tricks on the poor), and he has an intriguing religious angle as well that sets him apart. Easie, on the other hand, spends pretty much the whole book trying desperately not to do the right thing, and his struggle with his own self interest forms the core dynamic of the book. Conversely, as I’ve noted, although Warden is a drug pusher (and addict) – mostly to the rich and powerful it’s true – he is also a man who can’t ignore his moral compass – and interestingly he lives in a world where crime matters far more: however gritty his world, the abduction and death of a single child is a matter of public outcry and attention, whilst in many settings it would be lost in the background noise. Hence Warden spends more time playing thief-taker than actual thief.
Perhaps most intriguing, from the morality point of view, is Drothe. We first see our hero having someone brutally tortured for information: he’s not a nice man. However, he looks after his own, whether it’s the people he lodges with, or his fellow Kin (thieves) – he has an extremely complex hierarchy of loyalties, but they make up a big part of his character and motivations, and in the end he is willing to take great personal risks to defend the Kin as a whole against threats from outside. This makes the relationships between thieves and gangs of thieves (and other organisations, such as the weird warrior order that Drothe’s closest friend belongs to), their betrayals, shifting alliances and infighting, the focus of the book, all as seen through Drothe’s eyes – at the same time cynical about it and inherently invested in it.
That, frankly, is far too long a post. Enough about thieves.