When I'm feeling low, there's a city I like to visit. This particular city is contained within a handful of shabby 1980s paperbacks around which I coil as protectively as a dragon around her hoard (though the city in question contains no actual dragons): The city of Liavek.
Liavek is an odd and lovely shared world which originally manifested itself in the form of five collections of short stories, novellas and poems edited by Will Shetterly and Emma Bull. Originally created by a group of seven that included Bull, Shetterly, Pamela Dean and Patricia C. Wrede, the teeming port city soon attracted an eager panoply of authors, including Jane Yolen and Alan Moore.
Those collections have long been unavailable — shared worlds, with their multiplicity of authors and copyrights, can be tricky to keep in print — but now some of the best stories are back. Pamela Dean and Patricia C. Wrede have conspired with Diversion Books to revive their own contributions to Liavek's lore as Liavek: Points of Departure, opening the city gates to a new generation of readers.
Dean and Wrede describe Liavek as "a hot, busy trade city ... When we invented Liavek, we wanted it to be a place where we, our real selves, could live if we had to. So it has a number of things its authors felt they couldn't live without: coffee and chocolate, cheap and reliable birth control [the Worrynot herb], good medical care (based on magic, but still effective), good food, all-night cafés, a high literacy rate. And, of course, magic."
For a world conceived in the 1980s, Liavek was notably forward-looking in some ways. As a counter to the default whiteness of fantasy at the time, Liavekans are dark-skinned, as are the indigenous S'Rian people on whose older town the city was built. A same-sex relationship is central to some of Dean's stories, and the city has multiple religions, but also atheists — no easy feat when the various gods regularly take an interest in human affairs.
Like all short story collections, the Liavek works are hit-and-miss; but with all its flaws, the city still has a beguiling charm. Dean's stories focus on two teenagers from an immigrant family, Nerissa and Deleon Benedicti. Among her finer creations are the entirely believable company of the Desert Mouse theater, where Deleon finds a second, chosen family, and the affable priest Verdialos of the House of Responsible Life, an order which exists to help the suicidal settle their responsibilities, examine their motives and (if they still wish) depart in the manner of their choice.
Wrede focuses on one of Liavek's senior citizens: Granny Carry (or Kahri, or Karith, or Ka'Riatha), whose grim task it is to deliver counsel, guidance and retribution to the city's S'Rian community. She'd much rather be looking after her loom and eight cats, you understand, but there are misuses of magic to be dealt with and a mad god trying to drive the city insane, and the Ka'Riatha is not one to shirk her duties. Unfortunately, Wrede's stories also feature the almost painfully annoying god Rikiki, cursed to spend a hundred thousand years in the form of a blue chipmunk. This probably seemed like a cute idea at the time.
While it's lovely to see these stories back in print, one can't help but feel the empty spaces where the missing pieces of the shared world should be. Dean and Wrede excel at writing characters and relationships, but the broader Liavek universe also encompassed plenty of adventure: Piracy, espionage, murder mysteries and high-speed railway trains that run on magic. It would be great if this book's release were a catalyst to bring some of those other Liavek works back into print. Particularly dear to my heart are the four excellent stories and numerous poems of John M. Ford, which would easily fill an enjoyable book. (For now, you can find three of Ford's stories in his long out-of-print collection Casting Fortune, if you can lay hands on a copy.)
If you enjoy Points of Departure, then it's worth tracking down some or all of the five original Liavek anthologies second hand. At the moment, they are fairly widely available — but '80s paperbacks, like all good things, must come to dust. Thanks to Dean, Wrede and Diversion Books, the city of Liavek — with its cobbled streets, the bargaining cries in the Two-Copper Bazaar, the street performers in the Levar's Park, the slow-winding Cat River — will not fade with them.
Liza Graham is a mezzo-soprano and writer, born in Washington, D.C., and living in London. She has been a critic and columnist for the Metro papers, as well as a guest blogger at mightygodking.com. Her poetry has been published in Goblin Fruit magazine.