CITY OF THIEVES
Reviewed by Mark Lain
This was the second FF book I ever got and this was the one that really got me hooked on the series and defined Ian as my favourite FF author. I’m not sure what my feelings towards the series would have been if I’d got the lame Starship Traveller, the fun but far too simple Forest Of Doom or the satisfying but inconsistent Citadel Of Chaos as my second FF, but I didn’t. Instead I chose COT based purely on the very atmospheric cover and the fact that, at the age of seven, Zanbar Bone looked a much more interesting baddie than a half-assed battle droid, a lizardy shape-changer, or Big Bird’s melanic cousin having a bad hair day! COT is the first FF that is intended to be part of an interconnected series, it being the first of a Livingstone trilogy that continued with Deathtrap Dungeon and ended with Island Of The Lizard King. We are finally seeing concrete evidence that the FFs are a global body of work and that these books are set on the same landmass. Plus, this book introduces another key NPC to the series: the wizard Nicodemus (who I have always thought was less annoyingly wacky and more adult-oriented than Yaztromo.)
COT is not perfect, but it’s certainly got enough brilliance in it to say that it is the first genuinely superb FF.
Firstly, there is the art – the images are excellent, atmospheric and really suit the feel of the book.
Secondly, there is Port Blacksand itself. PB is one of the best planned-out and most vivid townscapes in any FF book and the FF editorial team also clearly thought so as it gets revisited several times in later books (Midnight Rogue, Temple Of Terror, Night Dragon, Blacksand, etc) and even gets its own entry in Titan – The FF World. The town is varied, exciting, there are no dull moments, and it really does feel like a town full of cutpurses, rogues, thieves, and generally unsavoury people/things that you wouldn’t want to introduce your Granny to.
Thirdly, there is the difficulty level. Yes, this is IL, so the book is linear and the true path is tight but can be found with multiple visits and mappings. This book is challenging enough to be worth trying to beat, but it’s far from the pointlessly impossible difficulty level that marred some of IL’s other FFs. The sheer interest and fun levels of COT make you want to keep replaying a) to try to beat the book because you realise quickly that you actually can, and b) just to see what every nook and cranny of PB can throw at you.
There is also the plot. Unlike many of the earlier FFs, COT does not have umpteen plot flaws and loopholes and avoids the wild improbabilities that can often be found if you look beneath the surface of what you’re doing. The plot is simple but effective: PB is being oppressed by an undead baddie (we hadn’t had an undead uber-psycho in FF yet) and you are an assassin who has to get into PB in the first place, work your way through it, find the wizard Nicodemus, get his advice on what to do, then collect the usual shopping list of key items (which, in COT you actually know what are!) before heading out of town to take Zanbar himself on on his own turf. The multiple tasks/stages adds a lot to this plot making it far less one-note than most FF plots and, on completing a stage, you really get the feeling that you are achieving something and getting somewhere. The fact that you know what the main items you need are reduces your chances of disappointment if you get all the way to the end without them as, in COT, you can’t leave the town stage unless you have all of them so you know if you’re losing before it’s too frustratingly late. The dynamic here is similar to Steve Jackson’s 4-book Sorcery series where you complete sections of a story by repeated attempts and then pass through to the next stage in the knowledge that you are not on a hiding to nothing - much more satisfying and far less demoralising. The plot becomes even more interesting and you are challenged again when you discover that old Nicodemus is actually senile and has made you collect too much stuff as he can’t remember what you actually need to beat Zanbar Bone. This adds a neat twist and means that you cannot simply bulldoze past Zanbar at the end – you have to make the right choice to win. Personally, I like this aspect as it keeps things interesting all the way through the book. If there is one criticism of the plot it would be that home security is non-existent in such a supposedly rough neighbourhood and no-one seems bothered when you wander in and out of their houses uninvited, but this is a minor point in the grand scheme of things.
The encounters in this book are also interesting. There is a balanced mix of human and creature encounters. There are no out-of-place encounters and everything seems to fit the environment. It is possible to get lucky as much as it is possible to get ripped-off which makes taking chances interesting. Some of the items you find are simply rubbish which is rare for FF as most of the stuff you tend to collect in FF is spectacular, valuable, or makes you tougher in some way. The rubbish items do, however, seem like they could prove handy (old knucklebones?) which makes collecting items fun as normally in FF you can tell what will and won’t be of any use. In some FFs there are so few items that the effect of them is blindingly obvious. In others, there are so many items you can collect that you get bored of finding stuff and writing it down after a while as there’s no sense of achievement. COT gets the balance just right. There are some unique creatures that have not resurfaced in other FFs (eg: leaf beasts) which gives an impression that PB is different to other places in Allansia, but there is also enough standard fare to stop it seeming like it exists in a bubble and helps make it feel connected to an outside world. There is also a lot of fun to be had in revelling in some of the places/people you can see/meet. The pubs, the harbour, the market (the first properly-located one in FF rather than an improbable shop like in Warlock Of Firetop Mountain, the totally ridiculous shop hidden underground in a place no-one knows exists in Eye Of The Dragon, or the pointless visit to see Yaztromo in Forest Of Doom), Nicodemus, the sewer, and the town guard/prison are all vivid and are just a few of the great moments to be found in COT that make PB come alive and seem like a teeming and dangerous town.
Even the cover art is well thought-out and is even bordered with a neat frame image. It seems to me that this cover was not an afterthought in the way that the shoddily-executed covers of some FFs such as Citadel Of Chaos or Phantoms Of Fear seem to be and that this cover had considerable design effort put into it.... and Zanbar Bone really does look like a daunting foe rather than the nice Granddad figure of Zagor on WOFM or the campy undead pharaoh reaching pathetically forward on the cover of Curse Of The Mummy.
Is this Ian’s greatest FF achievement and had he thrown all his cards on the table with COT? For a short time you would probably have said “Yes” but then came Deathtrap Dungeon...