Tuesday, March 1, 2016

What I'm reading: The Anvil of the World

The Anvil of the World is a fantasy novel by Kage Baker published in 2003. While I didn't know this when I picked it up, it appears to be #1 in a series of 3 books. I knew nothing about the author. I picked it up because the cover had a picture of a steamboat with two people dressed in Renaissance/Early Modern garb and  because the back of the book jacket said the following.

The outgrowth of stories Baker has been writing since childhood, an engaging as Tolkien's work and yet nothing like it. Smith's adventure is certainly the only fantasy on record with a white-uniformed nurse, gourmet cuisine, one hundred and forty-four glass butterflies, and a steam boat. This is a book filled with intrigue, romance, sudden violence, and moments of emotional impact, a cast of charming characters and echoes of the fantasy tradition that runs from Lord Dunsany and Fritz Leiber to Jack Vance and Roger Zelazny.

I was ready for a change to non-fiction so I thought, a fantasy with a steam boat might be amusing and it might have some clock punk or early steam punk artifacts I could steal for Honor+Intrigue.

What a pleasant surprise. The book jacket was fairly on target. Baker's names and locations do have an air of Dunsany or H.P. Lovecraft's Dreamlands tales that commences with the very first line of the novel.

Troon, the golden city, sat within the high walls on a plain a thousand miles wide. the plain was golden with barley. 

Baker quickly weaves in the sort of playfully cynical tone one might see in the works of Leiber or Vance.

The granaries of Troon were immense, towering over the city like giants, taller even than its ednlessly 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, where 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 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.

It's a picaresque tale and the protagonists and other main characters are the sort of quirky oddballs one finds in Vance's Demon Prince's novels. I don't want to give away any secrets, and many of the characters encountered do have secrets, but in tone and style the characters, plot, and writing style this felt like a novel from the first three quarters of the past century. I found it to be a surprisingly pleasant and welcome change from the current fashions in fantasy. And I found I didn't at all miss the skipping from viewpoint to viewpoint that has seemed to become de rigueur in a lot of modern fiction published since the mid 1980s. I also liked the fact that this wasn't billed as the first in a new series. I was able to enjoy the story on its own and for it's own sake and it reaches a reasonable conclusion that doesn't leave you feeling like your were cheated of an ending.

So if you like fantasy as written by many of the old masters, give The Anvil of the World a read.

I give it 3.5 out of 4 stars.

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