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Worldbuilding in a Nutshell: Martin & Dozois’s Rogues Anthology

Sipani, and most especially its moist and fragrant Old Quarter, was full of thieves. They were a constant annoyance, like midges in summer. Also muggers, robbers, burglars, cutpurses, cutthroats, thugs, murderers, strong-arm men, spivs, swindlers, gamblers, bookies, moneylenders, rakes, beggars, tricksters, pimps, pawnshop owners, crooked merchants, not to mention accountants and lawyers. Lawyers were the worst of the crowd, as far as Friendly was concerned. Sometimes it seemed that no one in Sipani made anything, exactly. They all seemed to be working their hardest to rip it from someone else. — From “Tough Times All Over,” by Joe Abercrombie, appearing in Rogues

Like many Internet-dwelling Song of Ice and Fire fans, I have at least a passing familiarity with George RR Martin’s blog, so I saw the many announcements about the release of his and Gardner Dozois’s new 2014 anthology Rogues. Although big multivolume epic novels are usually my format of choice, I sought out a copy of this anthology both because of the number of my favorite authors whose worlds made cameo appearances (most notably Patrick Rothfuss, Neil Gaiman and Martin himself), and because I’ve had a soft spot for rogues ever since building my first D&D character (3rd edition, 2001, a half-elven woman who stole 50 gold pieces from another PC in her first session. My geek roots run past sociology and novel-writing).

I’ll confess up front, I didn’t read every story in this anthology: if a story didn’t grab me in the first five pages, I was apt to skim it or skip it altogether. But even using that cherry-picking method (I probably read about half of the 21 tales), I found several stories here that impressed me, and not just those from authors whose names I recognized. I’ll be looking to read more from Joe Abercrombie, Gillian Flynn, Scott Lynch and Daniel Abraham based on the stories they contributed to this anthology. And by the time I got to the end of the book and GRRM’s 35-page historical account of Targaryen history (which I, as a history geek and amateur genealogist, thoroughly enjoyed), I’d noticed a common element to the secondary-world offerings that I liked: they all did a very good job of presenting a complete setting in a comparatively small space.

For me, Gaiman’s story was an example of how not to do this. He wrote in an existing universe (the underground world of London Below from Neverwhere) and although I’ve read the novel, it was too distant in my memory to allow me to link the faint bells the story was ringing with the larger context of the world. Rothfuss’s story, on the other hand, largely avoided attempted tie-ins to the larger world it was drawn from and kept its focus on a few characters and a self-contained plot.

The stories that particularly impressed me in this regard, though (even more than Abercrombie’s, despite the quote that starts this post) were Lynch’s “A Year and a Day in Old Theradane” and Abraham’s “The Meaning of Love.” I felt that each author did a very good job of establishing a unique and interesting setting, and that Lynch was particularly skilled at doing this while also introducing us to some compelling characters. After rereading both stories with an eye to how they did it, I’ve come to the following conclusions for those who want to world-build on a limited scale:

  1. Keep it small. Both Lynch and Abraham tell stories set in a single metropolitan location, and for the most part in one or two spots within that location. There are allusions to the larger world in which the city sits, hints enough to make us believe that the authors could tell us more if we asked. I was particularly fond of this quote from Lynch’s story, where the roguish protagonist is laying out her credentials: “I stole the sound of the sunrise and the tears of a shark. I borrowed a book from the library of Hazar and didn’t return it. I crossed the Labyrinth of the Death Spiders in Moraska TWICE!” (p.248). I suspect Lynch could probably tell us more about these deeds, just like he could about the backstories of the rest of his crew of ex-thieves, but he chooses not to. In this anthology, he tells a story about a thieving crew in retirement, and about Theradane. Which brings me to my second point.
  2. Make your setting a protagonist. Both stories do this in spades. Abraham’s setting, the unincorporated Sovereign North Bank (with a relationship to the larger city around it a bit like Vatican City’s relationship to Rome, if Vatican City were a wretched hive of scum and villainy), gets the first two pages of a 30-page story all to itself; we don’t meet the human protagonist, Asa, until the top of Page 3, and further city description takes the first paragraph of almost every new scene. Even more important, both Abraham and Lynch tie the characters’ goals in with the aspects of the setting that they want readers to remember. In Abraham’s story, Asa’s goal is to free a young woman from being sold into a life of slavery; both her status as chattel and his freedom to use any methods available to hand come from the fact that the Sovereign North Bank is “an autonomous zone where the law protected and enforced lawlessness” (370). Lynch’s city, Theradane, is ruled by a loosely aligned wizard parliament and offers a unique sanctuary/citizen program for lawbreakers: “Pay a vast sum to the Parliament of Strife, retire to Theradane, and don’t practice any of the habits that got you in trouble outside the city. Ever.” (253) Unsurprisingly, the first thing we learn about Lynch’s heroes is that they’re retired criminals; the first thing to happen to them in the story forces them out of retirement. Thus, my third point.
  3. Hook us quickly. This almost goes without saying, but I’m going to say it anyway. In a novel, especially a fat novel like the ones I typically read, I’m often willing to read for 50 pages before putting the book down. I usually give a short story 2 pages, maybe 3. In Theradane, the first thing we see is the main character pausing before the soul-bound statues of those who crossed the wizards’ parliament and weren’t able to gain sanctuary, paying her respects to an old comrade and possible love interest. In Sovereign North Bank, the first thing we learn about Asa is that he’s secretly in love with the fugitive prince who’s sharing his tiny room. These are characters with things to gain and things to lose, and I was eager to read on in both cases.

So, that’s what I learned from my sampling of the Rogues anthology. I’ll definitely keep these thoughts in mind as I return to the age-old question of Whether I Should Attempt to Write Short Stories In My Setting. I’d recommend the book, too, and particularly the stories above. With 21 stories, there’s bound to be something that catches your fancy.

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