Wednesday, September 23, 2020

The Anvil of the World by Kage Baker

My biggest surprise: that I'm still angry that Kage Baker died, even a decade later. It was so senseless, so clearly wrong, that I wish I believed in some anthropomorphic personification so that I could blame that being for doing something so horrible. But I don't, and I know the world is pointless and random, that cruelty is only a human term, a way of looking at things that just are.

None of that changes an emotional reaction, of course. It never does, and never will. And that reaction has nothing to do with any of her books: she's gone, but they will endure. (Let's hope something similar can be said for all of us.)

The Anvil of the World was Baker's first fantasy novel, originally published in 2003. She later wrote two more novels set in the same world, The House of the Stag and The Bird of the River. I read Bird when it was published, and read other short pieces set in that world over the years, but I'd been saving Anvil and House so that I would still have Baker novels to look forward to reading. After ten years, I decided it was time for this one.

Anvil is officially a novel, but actually three related novellas -- very clearly and obviously so. The first one was published separately as "The Caravan from Troon," but I don't think the others appeared separately. So this is not actually a fix-up; just a novella that grew sequels and turned into a longer book.

Baker was always a great writer of novellas, that most SFFnal length, so this is entirely a good thing.

Baker's unnamed world is fantastic, but mildly so -- there are gods, somewhere outside the world, but they don't interfere directly. (There are, however, demigods that are very much in the world, living very long lives and shaping entire societies, so I may be making a distinction without a difference.) In the region that we've seen in her novels and stories, there are three distinct races, all of which can interbreed. First are the demons, the original inhabitants, who are said to be nonhuman, and at least the upper ranks of their society are made up of persons who are effectively immortal and have at least some limited shapeshifting ability. Next are the Children of the Sun, an expansionist and inventive human race who spread like locusts over a century or three until some cataclysm kills most of them off -- said cataclysms generally caused by the Children. Last are the green-skinned Yendri, who live in the forests of this part of the world and are subject to religious manias -- they're not quite the Good Indigenous People to be seen in contrast to the expansionist, casually destructive Children, but they're in that general region and individual Yendri certainly use that line of rhetorical attack during Anvil.

Our main character is a man of the Children, now calling himself Smith. He's in his early middle years, and is trying to get away from what are told was a very successful and eventful career as a professional assassin in various city-states of the Children. (There are many of those cities scattered across this continent, and the Children fight among each other as much if not more than they fight with others.) Smith is almost preternaturally good at killing people, but he wants to stop doing it. So, as the first section begins, he's taken on a new job, under his new name, as a caravan master from Troon to Salesh-by-the-Sea. It's a somewhat dangerous journey, through a semi-wilderness populated by Yendri tribes and bandits (mostly half-breed demons), but no more so than a long sea journey of the 18th century.

His passengers on that trip, though, are a mixed and strange group, including a courier who is clearly a member of a dangerous Children gang, a Yendri herbalist with his own secrets, and the reclusive, supposedly sickly young Lord Ermenweyr and his Nurse Balnshik. More than one of those passengers attract unwanted, violent attention on the route, and Ermenweyr turns out to be the half-demon son of the Master of the Mountain, the fabled leader of a slave rebellion turned into a cross between a bandit king and a feudal lord, as well as one of the demigods I alluded to before. (Ermenweyr's mother is also a demigod, of a very different kind, and whose history with the Master is complicated and threads throughout all of Baker's fantasy stories -- he either abducted her as a bride or she came to marry him on purpose to tame him, or possibly both.)

Since I've already mentioned that Anvil has the structure of three novellas, it should not be a surprise if I say the caravan does reach Salesh, more or less as planned.

At that point, Smith and his crew settle down there to run the Hotel Grandview, with an eye to a life that will be less fraught with danger. But Smith will not be able to avoid danger, not least because he's now something like a friend (or something like a pet, or something like a distant vassal) of Ermenweyr, who will return to Salesh in search of excitement and fun of the kinds only a teenage demigod and powerful natural mage can contemplate.

So the second section sees the Grandview during Festival time, a particularly raucous and public celebration of fecundity in all of its forms. (Baker is particularly amusing in describing this: she doesn't go in for body parts but gives a kaleidoscopic overview of the all-encompassing festivities.) [1] Ermenweyr arrives for a visit at the same time, hiding out from a wizard's duel with a rival he semi-inadvertently offended. And a guest dies mysteriously, right as the Grandview is undergoing a major inspection. Smith must solve all of those problems by the end of Festival, and he does so very amusingly.

The third, longest portion of the book is less amusing, on purpose. Ermenweyr essentially kidnaps Smith and Willowspear, the Yendri apothecary attached to the hotel, supposedly to save his sister from Yendri fanatics...though Ermenweyr's story does change somewhat in the course of their journey. Smith's amazing facility with murder gets a deeper examination, and a deeper purpose. And something like the fate of the world -- or the world of at least a large portion of the cast -- is eventually at stake.

(Well, I did say it was a fantasy novel. Such things are traditional.)

Baker had the gift of always being readable; she was one of those writers whose each sentence just leads to the next one, seemingly effortlessly, making it easier to just keep reading than to ever stop. Her people are quirky and specific, embedded in their particular worlds but reminiscent of our own. And her plots are full of complications and reversals both funny and frightening; she was a master of tone and could switch it up almost on a dime.

Anvil is a lovely book. I'm happy to live in a world where there are two more novels set in the same world, but we all should live in the world where a still-healthy Baker has written another one every two or three years since, and will keep doing so for another couple of decades. Sadly, "should" never enters into it, does it?

[1] Oh, all right. Have a quote, from p.175:
Next came rolling a half-sized replica of the famous war galley Duke Rakut's Pride, its decks crowded with sailors and mermaids, waving cheerfully at the crowd despite their various amatory entanglements.

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