When the folks at Orbit asked me if I'd be interested in hosting a guest blog from Michael J. Sullivan to help promote the upcoming The Crown Tower (Canada, USA, Europe), when I was told that it would on thieves in the fantasy genre I was happy to oblige!
Here's the blurb for The Crown Tower:
Two men who hate each other. One impossible mission. A legend in the making. Hadrian Blackwater, a warrior with nothing to fight for, is paired with Royce Melborn, a thieving assassin with nothing to lose. Hired by an old wizard, they must steal a treasure that no one can reach. The Crown Tower is the impregnable remains of the grandest fortress ever built and home to the realm's most prized possessions. But it isn't gold or jewels that the wizard is after, and if he can just keep them from killing each other, they just might succeed.
So here it is!
Thieves in Fantasy by Michael J. Sullivan
Thieves are bad. They steal and are frequently dishonest and yet a surprising number are the heroes of stories. With the comparatively recent shift in literature toward cynical, ambiguous main characters, (I hesitate to use the term hero or protagonist) one would think that “bad” thieves would be the vehicle of choice for writers today, and yet most of the ones that come to my mind have that spark of redemption in them.
I suspect the reason for this is where I started out: thieves are bad. There’s no fun in tearing down the virtue of a criminal. Take a righteous knight in shining armor destined by station and the mirror-like quality of his wardrobe to be an example of goodness and loyalty, then reveal his hypocrisy, his racism, his self-serving, wretched cowardice, or blatant stupidity, and you’ve got yourself an accident on the side of the road that everyone will want to slow down for.
But what good are thieves? They lost the compass to their morals long ago. Thieves have nowhere to go but up. Showing a thief to be greedy, cruel, self-centered, and cynical is like stating that snow is white. Not much of a show stopper—it lacks the bells and whistles. But, take a self-serving thief and turn him or her into a hero and voila!
Prometheus has to be one of the first hero thieves, the precursor to what I imagine is the most famous hero thief—Robin Hood. Both robbed from the rich and gave to the poor and crossed the Rainbow Bridge from myth to literature. Then Dickens gave us Fagin and the Artful Dodger. The Dodger I hold responsible for the concept of the gentleman thief, because you just know that if he’d lived, old Artful would have grown up to be Thomas Crown.
Perhaps the most virtuous of all hero-thieves has to be Jean Valjean from Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, with Hugo going the full gambit from a bread-thief to near saint. Then we had the accidental thief in Bilbo Baggins. The professional in Fritz Leiber’s Gray Mouser, the witty Silk from Edding’s Belgariad/Mallorean series, Jimmy the Hand from Raymond E Feist's Riftwar, Scott Lynch’s Locke Lamora, Sanderson’s Kelsier and Vin, and Rachel Aaron’s Eli Monpress. It appears that people enjoy seeing the world through the eyes of these “bad” men and women and to accompany them as the walk on the edge and disobey the rules.
As an author, I enjoy the limitless potential of the thief character. They’re good for just about any story. As we’ve seen they make excellent reluctant heroes. Thieves are usually smart, because they can’t survive on brawn. This makes them intelligent enough to know better, so when they break character and throw caution and their best interests to the wind to do something decent, it endears them to the reader. Who didn’t cheer when Han Solo came back to knock Darth Vader into space.
Independent thieves are also natural fonts of cynical wit. In the fantasy genre, they are the “bad boys and girls” that smoke, race cars, talk back to their teachers, grease their hair, and get the girls or refuse to marry the handsome prince so they can live life by their own rules. Thieves are rebels in any story they appear in. They don’t conform, they do what they want. They are what most readers want to be. They are, in short, cool.
You can’t do better than a thief as a hero, unless of course you have two. Double your thieves double your pleasure. I didn’t actually write the Riyria Revelations with this in mind, but in retrospect, it didn’t hurt. Take one deeply disturbed thief/assassin, add an idealistic and talented warrior/ex-mercenary, cook over an open flame, and then shake vigorously. You’ll get a great buddy cop movie, or if you pour it into a fantasy novel container, two very entertaining thieves that can surprise each other and the world they live in.
Given all the great potential for drama that thieves provide, it’s little wonder they are so popular in fantasy today. Who are your favorites?