Genuinely funny fantasy is hard to find (although stupid humor masquerading as fantasy is not), and this book succeeds marvelously.
It reminded me quite a lot of Thieves World which means, I suppose, that I should say it reminded me of Fritz Leibers Lankhmar, but I guess that places me in my cultural era! However, I found this book to be both wittier and more enjoyable.
Its made up of three linked novellas, following an ex-mercenary named Smith.
In the first story, Smith, having left his previous employment after deciding he doesnt enjoy killing people, appeals to his cousin for a new job, and is placed as caravan master, in charge of safely transporting a load of goods and passengers to Salesh-by-the-Sea. Unfortunately, the goods are exceedingly fragile, the passengers are difficult, and the road is plagued by bandits, demons, and more
The second tale picks up after the caravan trip. Having overcome the difficulties of caravanning, Smith has settled down and, with the help of the caravans cook, Mrs. Smith (no relation; its a very common name), opened a popular hotel in Salesh. The story opens at the outset of the annual fertility festival which is basically one big orgy. However, members of the hospitality industry dont get to have much fun at such times especially when a celebrity journalist turns up dead in one of the hotel rooms. The health inspector charges Smith with solving the crime before festivals end or hell lose his license.
In the last installment, we get down to the familiar saving-the-world theme. The Children of the Sun have plans to develop a native Yendri holy spot and build a Planned Community. From this seemingly small conflict, the threat of an all-out race war quickly emerges. And if anyone gets their hands on the legendary Key of Unmaking, all could be lost
Smith is a rather taciturn, enigmatic character but the people who surround him are memorable, colorful types, who both fit into the archetypes of fantasy, but are original enough to feel fresh and unique the matronly cooking-contest winner Mrs. Smith, who hides a wild past Lord Ermenwyr, the spoiled, part-demon teenager with way too much power, money and drugs than is good for him, his voluptuous demon nursemaid, Balnshik, the athletic young courier Burnbright, and the sensitive, ecologically minded Yendri Willowspearetc. Theres also plenty of action, with ambushes, duels, assassinations, lots and lots of poisoned darts, sorcery and more.
Oh, and did I mention its all very funny?
It doesn't end on a cliffhanger - but there's definitely plenty of room for more tales of Smith and his compatriots...
It's nice to read a novel that doesn't require a sequel. The world-building in this novel was excellent, and the characters were interesting and original. The reviews on the cover by Anne McCaffrey and Ursula Le Guin were positive, and that drew me to it. I wasn't disappointed. The writing isn't too-flowery, the plot moves forward throughout (doesn't stall with over-wordy introspection) and Baker even infuses a little humor. Great book.
The Anvil of the World is not quite a novel, but rather three novellas, printed chronologically and linked by their cast of characters. I have a minor quibble with Tor in this matter, because the entire volume is divided only by line breaks, with a page break and a graphic of two swords crossing to indicate the start of the next novella, which made finding my page after I had set the book down rather difficult. (I don't use bookmarks.) It also made it less clear that that was to be the structure. If you go into reading this volume expecting a novel, it will seem extremely choppy, so be warned.
That said, the first novella takes the form of a traveller's tale and an adventure story; it serves as a wonderful introduction to the characters and the world. In it we meet Smith, who has just accepted the role of Caravan Master for his cousin; we meet his caravan Culinary Artist, Mrs. Smith; we meet his subordinates, both the muscle-boudn keymen and very young girl runner; and we meet his passengers, a family named Smith, a courier named Parradan Smith, a Yendri (a green-skinned forest-dwelling race) with his nose stuck up in the air, and Lord Ermenwyr and his (extremely attractive) nurse. Despite what the dust jacket says, none of these Smiths are related; they are all indeed Children of the Sun (humans) but none have ever met before and some (including our Caravan Master) are using Smith as an alias. ("Lovely impersonal name, Smith. Rather fond of it myself," says Mrs. Smith to Smith the Caravan Master after he refused to give her his first name.) Needless to say, Smith's first Caravan does not go well; they are attacked repeatedly, and not all of his passengers will arrive with him in Salesh-by-the-Sea, not least because few of them are who they seem.
What is so delightful about this first novella is the world we get to see through it. There has been a trend the past few decades towards more and more realism in fantasy writing -- a trend that has gone so far that books and seminars on fantasy writing always include basic rules for world-building, so that the budding writer doesn't make "mistakes" with geography, language groups, systems of magic, etc. Kage Baker throws that realism out of the window. From the very first page, when she describes how Troon's main event is the Festival of Respirator Masks, she dares us to complain about anachronisms and probability. There is magic aplenty, but no rules are ever laid-out to take its magic away and make it seem like paint-by-numbers; there are technologies side by side that were never seen side by side in our world.
The first novella ends when the caravan reaches Salesh-by-the-Sea; the next picks up several months later, as Smith, Mrs. Smith, his keymen and his runner have given up the caravan life and are now running an inn (already known for its restaurant) in Salesh-by-the-Sea. This second novella has a different structure; Lord Ermenwyr, who is now their patron, arrives to hide out during the Festival, and within hours of his arrival Smith has a dead body on his hands and a grumpy City Warden who has charged Smith with finding the killer by the end of Festival or he won't receive his Safety Certificate. Hilarity ensues, as Smith tries to question his guests and staff in the midst of total debauchery -- the traditional salutation during Festival in Salesh is "Joyous Couplings!" and the traditional costume is a bit of body paint and glitter. I giggled the entire way, enjoyed the revelations about Mrs. Smith's and Burnbright's pasts, and absolutely adored the introduction of Lord Ermenwyr's older brother.
The third novella takes up approximately 9 months after the Festival, but its tone is entirely different from the two novellas that came before, and this abrupt shift in tone is what you must be prepared for. Again Lord Ermenwyr's arrival heralds difficulties for poor Smith and his staff, but this time instead of hilarity we hear grumblings of race riots between the Children of the Sun and the Yendri and the whisper of a Key of Unmaking. The Yendri and the older races (demons, etc.) have always despised the Children of the Sun, for they breed like rabbits (they don't have any conception of birth control) and they decimate the land they settle on like a plague of locusts (they don't have any conception of crop rotation either), and the decision by a real estate company to build a new development on Yendri holy ground is not taken well.
But just as events are coming to a head in Salesh, Lord Ermenwyr abducts Smith for a boat trip to rescue his sister Svnae, of the short story "The Ruby Incomparable" that I loved so dearly in Wizards: Magical Tales from the Masters of Modern Fantasy. The trip does not go as planned, nor is Lord Ermenwyr being entirely honest with Smith; the Master of the Mountain and the Green Saint make an appearance, and even the gods (of both the Children of the Sun and the other races) get involved in what quickly ramps up to an end-of-the-world scenario.
And while that may make the third novella the most seemingly traditional of fantasy plots, the effect is anything but. The forces arrayed on either side of the conflict have very just and valid points, and it is not magic at the center of things but very human decisions. We are told from the first page that the Children of the Sun are "an energetic, sanguine, and mechanically minded people. . . They were consequently given to sins of an ecological nature. . ." Given that, Baker poses the following questions: how much can we blame these "children" for their ignorance, even when the consequences are dire? How much is that blame lessened (if any) if there are other peoples that do know better and, instead of relieving the ignorance they see, they withdraw into themselves or grow violent? It was a difficult story to read at 2am, especially coming on the heels of the delightful farce that was the second novella. It was also quite possibly the best thing by Baker that I have ever read, and I adored Sky Coyote. The Anvil of the World would have been a keeper (in hardcover) for the first two novellas alone; given the third, I have to give it my highest recommendation.
Social satire disguised as light-hearted fantasy, or the other way around. An excellently fun read with hysterically kooky characters (nearly all of which call themselves Smith to disguise unsavory backgrounds).