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The Anvil of the World
Kage Baker
Tor, 352 pages

The Anvil of the World
Kage Baker
Kage Baker was born in 1952 in Hollywood, California. She grew up there and in Pismo Beach, where she now resides. She has worked as a graphic artist, mural painter and assorted roles in the theatre. Many years of total immersion research in Elizabethan as well as other historical periods has left her with a working knowledge of period speech and details evident in her writing.

Kage Baker Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Black Projects, White Knights
SF Site Review: The Graveyard Game
SF Site Review: Sky Coyote
SF Site Review: Mendoza in Hollywood
SF Site Review: Sky Coyote
SF Site Review: In the Garden of Iden

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Gabe Mesa

It seems like your average fantasy. At least it starts out that way.

Troon, the golden city, sat within high walls on a plain a thousand miles wide. The plain was golden with barley.

The granaries of Troon were immense, towering over the city like giants, taller even than its endlessly revolving windmills. Dust sifted down into its streets and filled its air in the Month of the Red Moon and in every other month, for that matter, but most especially in that month, when the harvest was brought in from the plain long lines of creaking carts, raising more dust, which lay like a fine powder of gold on every dome and spire and harvester's hut.

First impressions, however, can be deceiving.
All the people of Troon suffered from chronic emphysema.

Priding itself as it did, however, on bring the world's breadbasket, Troon put up with the emphysema. Wheezing was considered refined, and the social event of the year was the Festival of Respiratory Masks.

Kage Baker is known to discerning science fiction readers as the author of the Company books, a series about a group of time traveling operatives who work for an immensely wealthy twenty-fourth century corporation about whose motives they know little and which seems to grow progressively more nefarious with each book. Not being a fan of series, which I find almost invariably grow weaker as they progress, I was initially reluctant to read the Company books, but to my happy surprise I have found them to be not only charming, suspenseful, humorous and thoroughly researched but also particularly well-written, in a subtly elegant style that avoids pretension. Kage Baker is, to my mind, one of the best-kept secrets in SF.

There are flashes of humor in the Company books, particularly in the second book of the series, where an operative is sent on a mission to relocate a group of early Californian native Americans. Craftily choosing to arrive as the incarnation of their god Coyote (complete with prosthetic devices that result in more than a passing similarity to Wiley Coyote of Warner Brothers cartoon fame), he is welcomed graciously but not without surprise. (After all, he is told repeatedly, we thought you were just a metaphor...) It wasn't until her Golden Gryphon collection of Company stories, Black Projects, White Knights, however, that readers were given the opportunity to watch Ms. Baker employ humor as more than just another arrow in her quiver. In the one unpublished story in the collection, "The Queen in Yellow," a hapless Company operative in nineteenth century Egypt is assigned to secure a valuable manuscript from a tomb and screws up, resulting in a series of spectacular and increasingly more disastrous events. The story is not only hilarious in its entirety but also a lovely and winning tribute to the kings of silent movie slapstick.

In addition to being billed as her first fantasy novel, The Anvil of the World is also an opportunity for Ms. Baker to give her comedic talents a broader canvas. Anvil turns out to be not so much a novel per se as a series of three linked novellas featuring Smith, a successful ex-assassin seeking to begin a new life in the city of Troon, and Lord Ermenwyr, the offspring of a saint and a half-demon who becomes, oddly, both Smith's protector as well as his bête noire, his blessing together with his curse.

The first of the novellas is a fairly rousing, straightforward adventure where Smith is hired to defend a caravan traveling from Troon to the city of Salesh by the Sea, where Smith will eventually choose to settle down. By saving the life of Lord Ermenwyr, Smith earns the gratitude of the decadent young man (as well as that of his shapeshifting, attractive demon guardian and nanny). The novellas progressively increase in ambition and complexity. The second, with Smith now comfortably ensconced as an innkeeper in Salesh, turns out to be something of a murder mystery, where secrets about some of the supporting characters in the story are revealed. The third novella is the most accomplished and involves a reluctant quest, a rather ominous-sounding tool called the Key of Unmaking and a secret about Smith himself, together with cameos from Lord Ermenwyr's intriguing parents, most of whose actions have previously taken place offstage. (Naturally, the fate of the world also hangs in the balance.)

As much as I love the characters of the Company books, from the resigned and ever-pragmatic Joseph to the wounded Mendoza to the hapless Lewis, I believe Lord Ermenwyr may be Ms. Baker's most inspired creation. He is a walking contradiction -- at the same time that he is a cowardly, decadent, foppish, hedonistic, malingering, neurasthenic, selfish, polymorphously perverse substance abuser he can show honest loyalty, friendship and gratitude, and when he turns sentimental he manages to become, against all odds, weirdly lovable. Part of the pleasure of Mr. Baker's novel consists in seeing the full, complex personality of Lord Ermenwyr develop and unfold across the book. As late as the third novella, when Lord Ermenwyr and Smith are at sea and under attack, the Ermenwyr who has previously appeared so weak suddenly (unexpectedly and surprisingly, but in a way that still manages to complement and mesh with what we already know of him) becomes frightening:

"I'll show them dead meat," said Lord Ermenwyr, in a voice that made Smith's blood run cold. He looked up to see that the lordling had risen, and had thrown off the glamour that normally disguised him. His pallor gleamed under the moon; he seemed an edged weapon, a horrible surprise, and there was something corpselike and relentless in the stare he turned on the warship.
(The warship, needless to say, is not long for this world.) Smith, by contrast to Ermenwyr, is quiet, stolid, brave, resourceful and seems to want little else out of life than the chance to be left alone and earn an honest living. There is no possible way that as a character he can compete with Ermenwyr, but he is not intended to -- it is the contrast between the two characters, and their interaction, that ultimately fuels the novel. If Smith does appear at times to be too much the stereotypical silent-hero-with-a-secret, Ermenwyr more than makes up for it.

Readers of the usual Terry Pratchett/Tom Holt punfests that pass for comedic fantasy today will find something unexpected (and, one hopes, unexpectedly delightful) in The Anvil of the World. The humor of the book is subtle, and to the extent it is based on word-play, it is the word-play of wit and dialogue and not of the groan-inducing double entendre. Aspects of Ms. Baker's novel reminds me of nothing as much as the old, somewhat forgotten madcap 20s fantasies of Thorne Smith (Topper, The Night Life of the Gods), where elegantly dressed, glamorous couples trade witty barbs while imbibing martinis in quantities that would kill an elephant. (If you've never read a Thorne Smith novel, you may still get the idea if you've seen William Powell and Myrna Loy play Nick and Nora Charles in the movie adaptation of Hammett's The Thin Man. If you haven't done that either, please remedy these holes in your education as soon as possible.) The unabashed, guiltless pursuit of pleasure (certainly by Ermenwyr but also by others) is a running motif in Anvil, not least in the second novella, which takes place during festival time at Salesh, a time of unbridled consumption -- carnal, alcoholic and gastronomic -- where the appropriate salutation is "Joyous couplings!" Finally, although the use of humor in Anvil is stronger than in any other of Ms. Baker's books, it would be wrong to categorize the book solely as a work of comedic fantasy. As Anvil progresses, the humor does not lessen but the themes do turn progressively more serious, and the last novella in particular succeeds in addressing broad environmental themes in a manner that is earnest and touching without being preachy.

"We are a people of simple tastes. We do not find it necessary to cloy our appetites with adulterated and excessive sensations."

"But it's so much fun," Lord Ermenwyr told him.

And so is The Anvil of the World.

Joyous couplings!

Copyright © 2003 Gabe Mesa

Gabe Mesa lives in New York City with his wife and daughter and 4,000 books.

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