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.