Liavek, edited by Will Shetterly

liavek-edited-by-will-shetterly coverGenre: Fantasy Anthology
Publisher: Ace
Published: 1985
Reviewer Rating: four stars
Book Review by David Hart

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This is a collection of 11 short stories taking place in a shared-world (the same concept as Thieves’ World). The action takes place in Liavek, a port city and local political power. The technological level is sixteenth century, with flintlock pistols a recent innovation and naval ships using a mixture of sail and oar. The magical level however is much higher. There is at least one genuine god, with others implied. There are occasional powerful magical artifacts. Mostly though there are the inhabitants, each of whom has their personal “luck”: minor magical ability that manifests only on a person’s birthday, and then only during the hours corresponding to his mother’s labor.

For most people, that’s it: a few hours a year of unusual luck, good or bad. But if you study and practice for years, you can risk trying to “invest” your luck. This is jargon for transferring your luck out of yourself and into an object. Of course this can only be accomplished on your birthday, and is very risky as failure destroys your luck, resulting in sickness and death within days. The reward of success is to become a wizard, someone who, so long as he is near to his luck-object, has access to his luck all the year. This can be used for many purposes, for instance illusion or healing. However next birthday your luck is released, and you have to go through to whole business again if you want to continue being a wizard. During the time of investiture a wizard is unable to perform any other magic, and so is vulnerable to predators.

The above paragraphs summarize the main features of magic. However there are several bells and whistles, and these and other information about the world are given in appendices to the book. I strongly recommend reading these first. This will make the first few stories much more understandable.

So to the stories. The first is “Badu’s Luck” by Emma Bull. This starts with a digression where the characters inform each other and the reader about luck and its investiture. The story itself concerns a wizard, Badu, who is being stalked by assassins or wizards or both. Unfortunately it is her birthday and in a few hours she will be helpless. So she comes for protection to her old friend Snake, a shopkeeper and caravaneer who is one of the book’s stock characters, appearing in several authors’ tales. In this one she is the heroine, fighting off all-comers to protect her friend. This is one of the better stories in the book, well written with likable characters. I feel its only fault is brevity; it seemed a little constricted within 27 pages.

Another story that might have been longer, though for a different reason, is “An act of contrition” by Steven Brust. His hero, Count Dashif, is a wizard whose luck has been destroyed, so he has instead become the Regent’s hit-man. An old religion is about to recommission a magical artifact that may prove a danger to the state. The Count too quickly and easily identifies the perpetrators and arranges their demise. I feel that another 10 or 20 pages of complications would have resulted in a more rounded story. As it is, the plot and characterization are somewhat wasted.

Evidently Count Dashif is a stock character too, as he appears in “A Coincidence of Birth” by Megan Lindholm. This is a much better-balanced story about a wizard whose luck-object has been stolen and sold to Snake. When she gives it to Count Dashif, the wizard tries to use the heroine of the story to retrieve it.

Another enjoyable story is “Ancient Curses” by Patricia Wrede. Here we are introduced to the S’Rian people, descendants of the original inhabitants of the area. Their favorite god, Rikiki, has been cursed to become a chipmunk for 100,000 years. Now he is being further threatened by a wizard, and has to be defended by his hereditary protector. Well written, good characters, and well-judged touches of humor.

Equally good is “Bound Things” by Will Shetterly whose character, The Magician, appears in several of the stories. Here he is the protagonist, outwitting an attempt by other wizards to imprison him. A good plot with a good twist.

Noticeably less well plotted and characterized is “The Green Rabbit from S’Rian” by Gene Wolfe. An ancient artifact, possibly magical, has been found and soon stolen. In case the thief is escaping by sea, an impoverished naval captain with a novice crew is sent to sail after the putative getaway vessel, which he locates with unsurprising ease.

Kara Dalkey in “The Hands of the Artist”, sets herself the unenviable task of engaging the reader’s interest when her protagonist is a foppish art-critic. Although she succeeds to a surprising degree, the plot itself is rather slight.

Inevitably some stories didn’t hit the mark, at least for me. In “Birth Luck” by Nancy Kress, a bond-servant overreacts irrationally when her untrained brother fails to invest his luck and dies. Much emotion, little story. Another that tries to build on inadequate foundations is “The Inn of the Demon Camel” by Jane Yolen, a short-short only six pages long, consisting of attempted drollery and little else. In contrast, Pamela Dean’s “The Green Cat” runs to 35 pages and has a story. Unfortunately it is a conspicuously uninteresting one. A teenager wants to die because she dislikes her family. So she joins the Green Order, a religion that exists to facilitate suicide but only when all its rules are fulfilled (and they seldom can be). However the story fails to convince, partly due to a lack of emotion in the writing, and partly because it isn’t adequately explained why she doesn’t just freelance.

Let’s end on a high note. The anthology finishes with “The Fortune Maker” by Barry Longyear, which tells the tale of a garbage-picker whose life is transformed when he liberates his luck in a religious ritual. It’s by far the longest story in the book, and is all the better for it as it allows time to create the best-crafted characters and a good plot; if the magic itself seems slightly off-message, perhaps that is due to its religious origin.

So that makes better than half the stories positively good, plus another two that are reasonable. That’s much better than most anthologies! And the shared-world itself? Compared with Thieves’ World (as is inevitable), it scores well. There is plenty of background detail in the appendices to give authors something to get their teeth into. Intentionally or not, the moral tone of the stories is higher: here we can empathize with ordinary citizens, instead of having thieves and torturers as anti-heroes. Most important though is the magic. The idea of investiture is certainly novel, and provides an Achilles’ heel to the otherwise invulnerable wizards. Ironically, this is my main criticism of the book: magic features in all the stories, and investing it is the mainstay of the plot of most. This becomes slightly monotonous after a while. Overall though the book is well worth reading, and I’ll be looking out for the four sequels.

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