The following is a non-spoiler review of “A Year and a Day in Old Theradane”, a piece of short fiction by Scott Lynch included in the new Rogues anthology. The anthology, edited by Gardner Dozois and one George R.R. Martin, is the latest iteration of a series of themed cross-genre collections of short fiction by big name authors. (See also: Warriors, Dangerous Women, …)
Rogues contains stories by:
Joe Abercrombie • Daniel Abraham • David W. Ball • Paul Cornell • Bradley Denton • Phyllis Eisenstein • Gillian Flynn • Neil Gaiman • Matthew Hughes • Joe R. Lansdale • Scott Lynch • George R.R. Martin • Garth Nix • Cherie Priest • Patrick Rothfuss • Steven Saylor • Michael Swanwick • Lisa Tuttle • Carrie Vaughn • Walter Jon Williams • Connie Willis
Tor.com asked me to write something non-spoilery about Scott Lynch’s story “A Year and a Day in Old Theradane”, and, well, here it is!
Rogues! What would fantasy be without them? You have to love the snarky, high-dexterity tricksters who add an element of surprise (and fun!) to the traditional swords-and-sorcery mix.
Ask some random readers for modern fantasy recommendations involving rogues, and you’re sure to hear more than a few people mention the names Scott Lynch and Locke Lamora—the former being the author of the wonderful Gentleman Bastard series, and the latter the main character of that series and, for my money, the best rogue character to appear in the genre in ages.
So. With that being said, I’ll go ahead and break the bad news: Scott Lynch’s contribution to the new Rogues anthology is not a Locke Lamora story. As far as I know, it’s not even set in the world of the Gentleman Bastard series. Of course, it could be: I didn’t recognize any proper names from the series, but the story might well be set on an entirely different continent or possibly in an entirely different era. Who knows, maybe Lynch is even trying to pull a Brandon Sanderson “Cosmere” trick here.
Still, for all intents and purposes, I think we can consider the story unconnected to the adventures of Locke, Jean, Sabetha et al. Not that this in any way spoils the fun, because “A Year and a Day in Old Theradane” is a blast from start to finish.
“Do you remember when we used to be interesting people?” That line, uttered by one of the main characters of the story, perfectly summarizes the starting point of “A Year and a Day in Old Theradane.” A group of forcibly retired criminals is meeting for one of their monthly drinking sessions, reminiscing about the days when they regularly pulled huge heists.
All of that ended when they purchased sanctuary from the Parliament of Strife, a group of insanely powerful—and powerfully insane—wizards who rule the city of Theradane and occasionally lay waste to entire chunks of it when they’re having one of their ongoing magical battles for supremacy. Or as one of the characters in the story says: “Always something interesting exploding nearby.”
And so, as the story starts, the “Retired Folks’ Commiseration and Inebriation Society” is sitting in a bar, playing cards and getting outrageously drunk—so drunk that the leader of the group, Amarelle Parathis, also known as the Duchess Unseen, decides to go give one of the wizards in the Parliament of Strife a piece of her mind. Not a smart move, as one of the conditions of her amnesty is never threatening the rulers of the “thaumatocracy.” And so it starts…
One of my favorite aspects of Scott Lynch’s prose is the way he describes the cities in his novels, and the way he not only manages to make them alien and mysterious, but also ties those alien and mysterious elements into the actual plot of the novel. It’s not just pretty scenery—it’s pretty scenery that also means something. Lynch does this several times in “A Year and a Day in Old Theradane,” from the description of the inn where Amarelle and company are meeting, to the residence of the wizard Ivovandas.
Most effectively, he uses this technique right from the start when Amarelle is walking towards the bar to meet her former crew. She crosses a bridge where former criminals suffer a horrific punishment: their unshriven souls reside in statues, lighting up the bridge and morosely reminding passers-by of their crimes. As a reader, you know immediately how ruthless the Parliament of Strife is. Then, when Amarelle passes the statue that holds the soul of one of her former crew members (“You bent your knees to my killers before my flesh was even cold. [...] Someday you will share this vigil with me.”), you know almost all you need to know about their history—all inside of two pages.
Another one of Scott Lynch’s strengths is also on display here: his ability to create colorful, fascinating characters in just a few paragraphs. Sophara Miris (whose description is a thing of beauty) was the magician of the crew, and now a mage-mixologist who creates the most amazing (and insanely intoxicating) magical cocktails. Her wife, Brandwin Miris, is an “armorer, artificer, and physician to automatons.” That last bit refers to the crew’s fourth member, Shraplin Self-Made, a magical steampunk-robot-person who gained freedom from indentured service in a most glorious way. (You’ll see.)
So, yes, they may not be Locke, Jean, Sabetha, Caldo and Galo, but this is still another fascinating group of “klepto-kindred spirits” (their term) who endlessly crack wise at each other and exchange some of the best insults and curses in all of fantasy. Their exploits wouldn’t be out of character for Jack Vance’s Cugel the Clever either; the atmosphere and tempo of this story somehow reminded me of the great author’s Dying Earth stories.
Since I’m comparing to other authors anyway, I can’t be the only person who was reminded of Kvothe when reading this glorious drunken rant by Amarelle, right before she’s about to get herself in trouble:
“Of course I can.” Amarelle stood up nearly straight and, after a few false starts, approximately squared her shoulders. “I’m not some marshmallow-muscled tourist, I’m the Duchess Unseen! 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—”
“I know,” said Sophara. “I was there.”
“…and then I went back and stole all the Death Spiders!”
I couldn’t help mentally adding a “You may have heard of me.” to that one. It’s ironic that, right before she launches that tirade, she says the prophetic words that sum up the entire story:
“Better to say nothing and be thought a fool,” said Amarelle, “than to interfere in the business of wizards and remove all doubt.”
To avoid spoilers, all of this really only summarizes the setup of this story—it’s after this that the real fun starts. There are many more goodies to be found (a spring-heeled werejackal! a magical Faraday cage!) and many more lines of witty repartee and spectacular insults. “A Year and a Day in Old Theradane” may not be a Locke Lamora story, but it’s a ton of fun and a great addition to this anthology.