Baker, Kage: Anvil of the World, The

Possibly my favorite of the cruise books was Kage Baker’s first fantasy novel, The Anvil of the World. Unfortunately, it’s the hardest to describe. Oh, it’s otherworld fantasy, apparently stand-alone, told in three novellas that build upon each other—but that doesn’t say what it’s about.

Let’s try one way. There was once a prophesied Holy Child, whose birth led to the revolt of the enslaved Yendri race, who then fled across the sea where they could live in peace. Except that the Master of the Mountain, a half-demon mage, kept raiding and plundering the Yendri villages. When grown, the Holy Child (now called the Green Saint), delivered her people from the depredations of the evil Master through the redemptive power of True Love. [*]

This is not their story.

[*] That is, she married him and forced him (and the subsequent brood of highly conflicted children) to behave.

It is the story of Smith, an assassin trying to get out of the business, who finds himself leading a caravan from Troon to Salesh-by-the-Sea in the first novella. He becomes acquainted with several people on the journey (including one of the children of the Green Saint and the Master); these acquaintances will lead him to deeper understanding of, and choices about, himself and the place of his race (the Children of the Sun) in the world.

You see the difficulty I am having? That sounds awfully ponderous, and while this book has a serious core (race relations and environmental awareness are certainly serious topics), it’s anything but ponderous. Consider the opening:

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 in 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.

All of the people of Troon suffered from chronic emphysema.

Priding itself as it did, however, on being 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.

And then there’s the duel using Fatally Verbal Abuse as a weapon, and Festival in Salesh (during which, it is said, nothing is forbidden, though alas this refers to sins of the flesh only and does not encompass manslaughter; and which features a cooking competition called the Pageant of Lascivious Cuisine for the Prolongation of Ecstasy), and the scene with the Liver Tartare, which caused Chad to ask me what I was giggling so helplessly at . . .

The Anvil of the World pulls off a journey from humorous and domestic, to deeply mythic, that few other novels manage—Bridge of Birds and Terry Pratchett’s better books are what comes to mind at the moment. I am almost certainly failing to do the book justice, but I enjoyed the heck out of it and strongly recommend trying it for yourself.

13 Comments

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  1. Man…you and Chad are both adding busily to my List, today. Thanks!

  2. Do let me know what you think of it when you read it!

  3. Comparing a book to both Bridge of Birds and Pratchett might be many things, but it’s certainly not failing to do it justice. Amazon ho!

  4. Mike–granted “overpraise” is not usually the sense of “fail to do justice” that one thinks of first, but I think it’s a possible subset–and now I’m worried that I’ve done just that . . .

  5. Man, I hate to throw in a contrary voice, but I thought Anvil, although it has some very nice flashes of inspiration sprinkled throughout, didn’t cohere very well at all as a narrative whole. And I say that as, generally speaking, a fan of Baker. Mileages vary, and all.

  6. Trent, I grant that “narrative whole” is not the strength of the book, which I tried to suggest by noting the three-novella structure and its movement in tone. (Also, I should’ve noted that it starts a little slowly.) But for pulling off the climax of the third part, and for making me giggle like an idiot in many places, I’ll forgive a *lot* worse structural problems than _Anvil_ had.

  7. I freely grant the “giggle like an idiot” part (as in, I share the same reaction); creating those bits is one of Baker’s real strengths. We have a difference of opinion about what she managed to pull off in the third section–my memory is hazy, but I do recall thinking of it as being the weakest section of the book.

  8. Well, speaking as someone who found The Garden of Iden fairly boring, I quite liked Anvil. It didn’t always hold together well, and I thought the attempts at humor were a bit affected at times. Beyond that, I don’t think it was beautiful in the way that Bridge of Birds was. But, all that aside, as Kate said, it was fun, and I like that.

  9. Aaron, I would definitely agree that it’s not at all like _In the Garden of Iden_, and I don’t remember _Sky Coyote_ well enough to say if it’s like that. I’ll get back to reading the Company books one of these days, when actual answers are forthcoming.

  10. I have a Theory as to what _Anvil_ is About. I think Baker’s writing the mythology that the West Coast, maybe just California, might have had had it developed endogenously (sic?): no distinct Old World, but the same West Coast we have now.

  11. Hi, Kate:
    AOL to your ANVIL comments, and AOL to clew’s alt-california theory.
    Quoting myself [at http://www.infinityplus.co.uk/nonfiction/anviloftheworld.htm ]: Near-perfect light, funny fantasy-California adventure stories.
    I don’t think anyone else here has commented yet on Our Kage’s multi-Smith tour de force here: the protagonist and at least six other unrelated characters are all named “Smith”. Homage to Thorne Smith, a Baker favorite — but all the Smiths are well-drawn and distinct, a welcome contrast to books with characters who have different names but all sound alike.
    We miss you at rasfw!
    Happy reading–
    Pete Tillman

  12. Pete: I didn’t even remember the multiplicity of Smiths until you pointed it out, so yes, it works very well indeed.
    I miss rasfw too, but I’ve had to admit that I simply don’t have the time for it any more. Alas.

  13. I re-read this because I’ve been staring at it on the bookshelf for weeks as I do stretches on the floor.
    I have nothing to add except the paragraph I was unconsciously mimicking in the review:
    “Smith just shook his head . . . . He supposed that benign heavenly beings who incarnated into the flesh with the purpose of defeating worldly evil knew best how to go about their divine jobs; but surely there had been a better way to do it than singling out a Lord of Evil, marrying him, and forcing him to behave himself? Let alone bringing a lot of highly unstable and conflicted children into the world.”

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