Kage Baker,
The Anvil of the World
(Tor, 2003)

"We were just like any other family, except for a few things like Daddy's collection of heads and the fact that half the world wants us all dead." - Lord Ermenwyr

Kage Baker is one of my favourite authors. Her books about the Company are not to be missed. How successful would she be at fantasy? If The Anvil of the World is anything to go by, she has nothing to worry about. With her trademark wit and punchy style fully in evidence, The Anvil of the World contains enough juicy goodness for even the most cynical palate.

The book is actually a collection of three linked novellas starring Smith (an alias), a man of many mysteries and an unknown past. A blood feud (the Children of the Sun are notorious for them) has forced him to become the caravan master in his cousin's business, and he's selected to lead a party to the pleasure city of Salesh with some valuable cargo. Things don't quite go as planned.

In the second story, Smith has started a hotel in Salesh with the staff from his caravan and business is booming, especially during festival time when freedom is loose and the participants are looser. Unfortunately, a death in the hotel could cost him everything as the constable gives him just four days to present a murderer or the constable will shut down the hotel. The third story involves an expedition to rescue Lord Ermenwyr's sister. This becomes a mission of destiny for Smith, as it turns out he holds the fate of the entire world in his hands. One wrong decision will result in the death of everything.

Baker has a wonderful way with words, and The Anvil of the World is a breezy read. She is a master character-builder, knowing just how much detail to add to make you care about (or at least be entertained by) each person in the story. The two biggest characters are Smith and Lord Ermenwyr. Smith is a former assassin who's given it up because he was getting tired of killing. Now he just wants to be left alone to run his business. Ermenwyr is a decadent demonic half-breed who whines a lot and thinks he's going to die all the time. He's also immature and stubborn, causing Smith no end of grief. It's even worse when his family gets involved.

The world Baker has created is alive. While there are many races around, there are mainly two: the Children of the Sun (humans, basically) and the Yendri, a deeply spiritual people who abhor violence (though they're not above having others do it for them). The Children of the Sun have all the foibles that our own human race has, especially where ecology is concerned. In fact, that's one of the minor problems I have with the book, that the ecological message is heavy-handed at times, especially in the last story. One pitfall she avoids, however, is making the Yendri pure of heart. Many of them think they are, but Baker does a good job showing both the good and the bad side of them.

The best thing I can say about this book is that it's fun. While Ermenwyr is the source for most of the humour, everybody gets involved. Smith is the straight man for the most part, trying to deal with people trying to kill him or his companions. When he realizes that he is the key to whether or not the world is destroyed, he is suitably (and humorously) overwhelmed. Some of the events are absurd enough that they make the reader laugh even without character involvement. However absurd the events are, though, they are realistic in the world that Baker presents. I had no trouble suspending my disbelief for any of it.

One word of warning for those who wish to browse just one of the stories in the bookstore: the stories are not individually titled and there's no way to distinguish where one ends and another begins other than reading. Read the whole book, as it's well worth it. While each story stands on its own, they do read better as a whole, with events in one story influencing the next.

Other than the occasional blunt message as noted above, there really isn't anything noticeably wrong with The Anvil of the World. Baker has further cemented her place as one of the best authors of the genre, showing that she can handle fantasy just as well as science fiction.

- Rambles
written by David Roy
published 27 March 2004

Buy it from Amazon.com.