Review Date: 19 September 2003

The Anvil of the World, by Kage Baker
Tor, New York, NY, August 2003, 350 pages, Hardcover, US$25.95, ISBN:0-765-30818-5
a review by Rich Horton

Kage Baker is mostly known for her Company series, comprising to date several novels and quite a few short stories, the latter mostly but not exclusively from Asimov's. But she has begun to publish a few non-Company stories. One of these appeared in Asimov's in 2001, a huge novella, almost 36,000 words, called "The Caravan From Troon". She has now expanded the novella into a novel, called The Anvil of the World.

The expansion has been done fairly simply by adding two more novellas, of roughly similar length, to the original one. (A quick check suggests that "The Caravan From Troon" is all but unchanged as the first section of The Anvil of the World.) The novellas are closely linked, featuring the same cast of characters, and following on each other sequentially.

In "The Caravan From Troon", a mysterious man named Smith, who had come to Troon to escape the wrath of the family of someone he had killed (his previous job was assassin), is assigned to lead a caravan from the agricultural city Troon to the seaside town of Salesh. The caravan must pass through the mountains controlled by the Demon called the Master of the Mountain, and also through the territory of the mostly pacifistic Yendri, or "greenies", forest dwelling folk who sometimes erupt in resentment at the technological ways of humans (or as they are called "Children of the Sun"). (It should be noted that Children of the Sun, Yendri, and demons are physiologically similar and each species is interfertile with the others, which turns out to be critical to the plot in a number of ways.) The caravan consists of a number of variously suspicious folks, including the sickly Lord Ermenwyr and his extremely lovely nurse; the highly competent cook Mrs. Smith; a courier named Parradan Smith; another family named Smith (yes, it's kind of a joke, though it later becomes somewhat significant); and a Yendri herbalist, as well as a teenaged girl named Burnbright whose job is "runner" -- to run ahead of the caravan.

This first story simply tells of the caravan's journey to Salesh. To be sure, the journey is not without incident -- the caravan is attacked on a couple of occasions, including once at an inn where Smith himself is nearly killed; most of the passengers prove not to be what they seem; Smith finds himself entrusted with an unexpected additional delivery. By the end we have a better idea of the social and political issues of this world, and we more or less know who all the players really are.

The second segment is a murder mystery of sorts. Smith and his fellow caravan workers, at the end of the first section, found it wise to leave the caravan business and open an inn, under the patronage of Lord Ermenwyr. Mrs. Smith is the cook, Burnbright runs messages for the inn, Smith himself is the innkeeper, and others, such as Keyman Smith, work as busboys, waiters, and the like. During Festival time in Salesh, the entire city gives itself over to a few days of sexual license. Unfortunately for Smith, a guest at the inn is murdered, and he is charged by the investigating constable with finding the murderer -- the constable having other plans involving a certain lovely. A further complication is provided by a wizard who has challenged Lord Ermenwyr to a magic duel. And finally, Burnbright falls in love with yet another guest.

Smith's investigations lead him to make some unexpected discoveries about the past life of certain of his associates. He also finds the murderer -- I thought a nicely set up surprise. And Burnbright's affair goes forward, but not without difficulty, and Lord Ermenwyr has his duel -- quite amusingly portrayed.

In the third section, a real estate company is proposing to build a development at a site sacred to the Yendri. This cause considerable interspecies tensions, and indeed it seems that a race war may be unavoidable. Amidst all this Lord Ermenwyr receives a Sending from his sister, who needs his help. Which turns out to involve a boat -- and Smith is the only person Lord Ermenwyr knows who can sail.

The resolution this time involves secrets about Smith's own past, which I thought were revealed fairly cleverly. It also involves dealing with the relationships between all the races, and considerable exploration of the history and myth underlying this fantasy world.

All in all, this is quite an enjoyable novel. It is fairly witty throughout, and cleverly imagined, if most of the setting consists of ringing changes on familiar fantasy environments. The moral is humanistic and affecting. The structure, as hinted, is a bit episodic -- it really is more three separate but linked stories than one unified novel. It's an entertainment, with just a hint of a serious core to it. Amiable, a bit rambling, not a major work but good fun.