Tales From the Vulgar Unicorn
edited by Robert Asprin and Lynn Abbey
This is the second of the Thieves’ World anthologies, the books that essentially created the shared-world writing form, in which different writers set their stories in the same fictional universe. There had been predecessors of a sort, in the form of things like the King Arthur stories or H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos — and of course Marvel and DC Comics had been doing this sort of thing for ages — but these are the books that really created shared-world writing, as we have come to know it, in print. I read the first six or eight or so when I was very young; let’s say, oh, ten or twelve. A couple of years ago I happened to pick up a used copy of the first one; rereading it, I was surprised, and impressed, to see how much it was of a piece with traditional swords-and-sorcery pulp adventure. My recollection, shaped by the later books, was of something more inbred and elaborate, with more graphic sexuality and gender-based themes — and an annoying tendency to soap opera and excessively powerful characters.
You can see that sort of thing beginning to develop in this second book. The stories aren’t bad, as such, but the apparently-immortal character of Tempus seems strangely out of place in the low-magic setting. Which may be why series editor Robert Asprin tried (unsuccessfully, as I recall) to write him out in the book’s last story. At any rate, you can see a tendency to angst in the stories revolving around Tempus, while the earlier stories in the book seem to me much more in the vein of Frtiz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser stories. Which, given the choice, I prefer.
Overall, these are competent pulp adventure stories, probably better as individual pieces rather than as a sequence. The shared-world aspect is useful, but not dominant; you certainly get the sense that anything could happen at any point — wars starting, Gods descending, you name it. Which is really the problem. If you try to look at the book as a unit, it starts and stops in peculiar ways and shifts from character to character in an inelegant manner. What you gain in unpredictability is offset in shapelessness. And one of the virtues of good pulp is cleverness in form (not brilliance, necessarily, but a clever play with plot structure). I think, all in all, that this and the first anthology were interesting experiments, but more notable in conception than execution.