The Anvil of the Worldby Kage Baker
Kage Baker's stories and novels of the mysterious organization that controls time travel, The Company, have made her famous in SF. So has her talent for clever dialogue and pointed social commentary with a light touch. "Ms. Baker is the best thing to happen to modern science fiction since Connie Willis or Dan Simmons. She mixes adventure, history and societal… See more details below
Kage Baker's stories and novels of the mysterious organization that controls time travel, The Company, have made her famous in SF. So has her talent for clever dialogue and pointed social commentary with a light touch. "Ms. Baker is the best thing to happen to modern science fiction since Connie Willis or Dan Simmons. She mixes adventure, history and societal concerns in just the right amount, creating an action-packed but thoughtful read," says The Dallas Morning News.
The Anvil of the World is her first fantasy novel, a journey across a landscape filled with bizarre creatures, human and otherwise. It is the tale of Smith, of the large extended family of Smiths, of the Children of the Sun. They are a race given to blood feuds, and Smith was formerly an extremely successful assassin. Now he has wearied of his work and is trying to retire in another country, to live an honest life in obscurity in spite of all those who have sworn to kill him.
His problems begin when he agrees to be the master of a caravan from the inland city of Troon to the seaside city of Salesh. The caravan is dogged by murder, magic, and the brooding image of the Master of the Mountain, a powerful demon, looking down from his mountain kingdom upon the greenlands and the travelers passing below. In Salesh, Smith becomes an innkeeper, but on the journey he befriended the young Lord Ermenwyr, a decadent demonic half-breed. Each time Ermenwyr turns up, he brings new trouble with him.
The outgrowth of stories Baker has been writing since childhood, as engaging as Tolkien and yet nothing like him, 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 steamboat. 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.
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Read an Excerpt
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 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.
* * *
On the fifth day of the Month of Chaff Storms, as a cold wind scoured the walls of Troon with stubble and husks, a man in a fish mask sat at a table in the Civic Ballroom and wished he were anywhere else.
He belonged to that race called the Children of the Sun, and, like others of his kind, he had skin and hair the color of a sunrise. They were an energetic, sanguine, and mechanically minded people, tracing their lineage back to a liaison between a smith god and a fire goddess somewhere in the deeps of time. They were consequently given to sins of an ecological nature (the slag heaps from their smelters were mountainous), and they were also quarrelsome (their blood feuds were legendary).
It was a particularly nasty blood feud that had sent the man in the fish mask fleeing to distant Troon, and he now sat alone at a table, watching the masked dancers as he glumly sipped beer through a long straw. It wasn't his kind of party, but his cousin (to whom he had fled) insisted he attend. The masked ball was held on the final night of a week of breath-less celebration, and everyone of distinction in Troon society was there.
The man in the mask turned his head, peering through the domed lenses of his fish eyes. The name Smith was an alias, only the latest of many the man had used. He got awkwardly to his feet as he saw his cousin approaching. His cousin's costume was fine and elaborate, robes of red-gold brocade and a fire efrit mask. No less elaborate was the costume of the lady his cousin had in tow: butterfly wings of green and purple foil and a butterfly mask of the same material.
"This, madam, is Smith. My caravan master," explained his cousin. "A most experienced veteran of transport. A man in whose expert hands you may trust the rarest of commodities."
This was not exactly true. Smith had never led a caravan in his life, but his cousin's freight and passenger service had lost its former master to a vendetta on the day of Smith's sudden arrival in Troon, so Smith was learning the business.
"How nice to meet you," said the woman in the mask, and shot out a black and curling tongue. Smith started, but the tongue was merely a feature of the mask, for it was hollow, and she poked it now into a tall glass of punch.
"Honor on your house, lady," Smith murmured.
His cousin coughed, and said, "Smith, this is Lady Seven Butterflies of Seven Butterflies Studio. You will be privileged to transport her celebrated creations!"
"I'm delighted," said Smith, bowing. "Rely on me, lady."
But Lady Seven Butterflies had lost interest in him and fluttered off to the punch bowl. His cousin leaned close and grabbed him by the shoulder. They bumped papier-mâché faces as he hissed, "Very important client! Almost ready to sign a contract granting us exclusive transport rights! Used to go with Stone and Son until they broke goods in transit. Vital we catch the ball, cousin!"
Smith nodded sagely. "Right. What are we shipping for her?"
"One gross of glass butterflies, what else?" said his cousin impatiently, and turned to pursue the lady. Smith sat down again. It was a good thing his new job would require him to be on the open road a lot. He didn't think people in Troon got enough oxygen.
He watched the dancers awhile in their stately pavanes, watched the symmetrical patterns their trailing brocades left in the rich layer of floor dust, and brooded on the sequence of events that had brought him here, beginning with an innocent walk to the corner for an order of fried eel.
That he had reached that time in life when really good fried eel was at least as interesting as romance made his sub-sequent misadventure all the more unexpected. Nor was he especially attractive. Even the girl's brothers had to admit there must have been a mistake on somebody's part, though they weren't about to retract their vow to see Smith's head on a pike, since without benefit of hot-blooded youth or personal beauty, he had nevertheless sent three of their kinsmen to the morgue.
He sighed now, swirling his beer and noting in disgust the fine sediment of dirt at the bottom of the glass. He thought of waving for a waiter, but his cousin came bustling up again with somebody new in tow.
"…with complete confidence, my lord. The man is a seasoned veteran of the roads. Er--Smith! I have the great honor of commending to your care the very noble Lord Ermenwyr of the House Kingfisher."
"Honor to your house, lord," said Smith, rising to his feet though he'd never heard of the House Kingfisher.
Lord Ermenwyr was doubled over in a coughing fit. When he straightened up, dabbing at his lips with an embroidered handkerchief, Smith beheld a slender young man. A pomaded and spangled beard was visible below his half mask, which was that of a unicorn's head. He had extended the unicorn theme to an elaborate codpiece, from which a silver horn spiraled up suggestively. The eyes behind the mask had the glitter of fever.
"Hello," he croaked. "So you're the fellow taking me to Salesh-by-the-Sea? I hope you've had some training as a psychopomp too. I expect to die en route."
"His lordship is pleased to be humorous," said Smith's cousin, wringing his hands. "His lord father has paid a great deal for his passage to the health resort at Salesh, and I have written to assure him in the strongest terms that Lord Ermenwyr will arrive there safely."
"Really?" said Lord Ermenwyr. "Watch this, then." He reached out with the toe of his boot and drew a bull's-eye in the dust. Stepping back several paces, he hawked and spat in a neat arc, hitting the center of the target with a gob of blood.
"You see?" he said brightly, as Smith and his cousin stared. "Utterly moribund. Don't worry, though; I've got embalming spices in my luggage, and Daddy won't mind my early demise much, whatever he may have written."
Smith's cousin closed his mouth, then said hastily, "It's simply the inconvenience of our local weather, my lord. I myself coughed up a little blood not an hour ago. It passes with the first winter rains!"
"I'll be in Hell or Salesh by the time they start, I devoutly hope," snarled the young man. He turned a gimlet eye on Smith. "Well, caravan master, I suppose we're starting at some ungodly hour in the morning? If I'm still moaning on my painful couch at cockcrow, you'll leave without me, no doubt?"
"The caravan departs from the central staging area by the West Gate an hour before dawn, my lord," said Smith's cousin helpfully.
"Fine," said Lord Ermenwyr, and turned unsteadily on his heel. "I'm going to go get laid while I'm still among the living, then." He staggered off into the crowd, hitching up his spangled tights, and Smith looked at his cousin.
"Does he have anything catching?" he demanded.
"No! No! Delicate lungs, that's all," chattered his cousin. "I believe his lord father's apt phrase was--" From the depths of his brocade he drew out a heavy, folded parchment to which was affixed a ponderous seal of black wax. "Here we are. 'Hothouse lily.' In any case the young lord will be traveling with a private nurse and ample store of physic, so your sole concern will be conveying him in one piece to Salesh-by-the-Sea."
"And what if he dies?" asked Smith.
His cousin shivered and, looking quickly at the letter as though it might overhear him, folded it again and thrust it out of sight. "That would be very unfortunate indeed. His lord father is a powerful man, cousin. He's paid a great deal for this passage."
"The lad'll be in a palanquin the whole way," added his cousin, as though that answered everything. "You'll have him there in no time. A routine trip. Your first of many, I'm certain, to the continued honor and glory of our house. Ah! You'll excuse me--I must go speak to…" He turned and fled into the crowd, in pursuit of some other bedizened customer.
Smith sat down, and took another sip of his beer before he remembered the mud at the bottom of the glass.
* * *
The gonging of the cistern clock in Smith's apartment warren woke him, and he was up and pulling on his coat in very little time. He paused before arming himself, considering his stock of hand weapons. He settled for a pair of boot knives and a machete; nothing more would be needed, surely, for a routine trip to the coast.
He was, accordingly, surprised when his cousin met him at the West Gate in the predawn gloom with a pair of pistolbows and a bolt bandoleer.
"You've used these before?" his cousin asked, draping the bandoleer over Smith's shoulder and buckling it in place.
"Yes, but--you said--"
"Yes, I know, it's all routine, easiest road there is, but just consider this as insurance. Eh? And it makes a man look dangerous and competent, and that's what the passengers want to see in a caravan master," explained his cousin. "There you are! The picture of menace. Now, here's the cargo and passenger manifest." He thrust an open scroll at Smith. Smith took it and read, as his cousin ran off to shriek orders at the porters, who were loading what looked like immense violet eggs into one of the transport carts.
There was, indeed, a gross of glass butterflies, being shipped from Seven Butterflies studio to the Lady Katmile of
Copyright © 2003 by Kage Baker
Meet the Author
Kage Baker lives in Pismo Beach, California.
Kage Baker was an artist, actor, and director at the Living History Centre and taught Elizabethan English as a Second Language. Her books include In the Garden of Iden, Sky Coyote, and Mendoza in Hollywood, among many others. Born in 1952 in Hollywood, she lived in Pismo Beach, California, the Clam Capital of the World. She died on January 31, 2010.
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Low rating is not because of the story or writing, but because this version has about 20 pages inexplicably left out! Large gap of missing pages makes for a very confusing read.
First we meet Smith, a new Caravan Master; his chef, Mrs. Smith; and his passengers, including a courier named Smith, a Yendri (a green-skinned forest-dwelling race), and Lord Ermenwyr and his nurse. None of these Smiths are related; they are all Children of the Sun (humans) but none have ever met before and some are using Smith as an alias. Smith's first caravan does not go well; they are attacked repeatedly, and not all of his passengers will arrive with him in Salesh because few of them are who they seem. What is so delightful about this section is the world-building. There has been a trend the past few decades towards realism in fantasy writing - books on fantasy writing even include basic rules so that the budding writer doesn't make "mistakes" with geography, language groups, systems of magic, etc. Kage Baker throws that realism out the window. From the very first page, when she explains that Troon's celebrates the Festival of Respirator Masks, she dares us to complain about anachronisms and probability. This section ends when the caravan reaches Salesh; the next picks up several months later, as Smith, Mrs. Smith, and his subordinates have given up caravan life and are running an inn. In this section Lord Ermenwyr arrives to hide out during the Festival, and within hours of his arrival Smith has a dead body on his hands and a grumpy City Warden insisting that Smith find the killer or he won't receive his Safety Certificate. Hilarity ensues, as Smith tries to question his guests and staff in the midst of total debauchery -- the traditional salutation during Festival in Salesh is "Joyous Couplings!" I giggled the entire way. The final section takes up approximately 9 months after the Festival, but its tone is entirely different from what came before. Again Lord Ermenwyr's arrival heralds difficulties for poor Smith and his staff, but this time instead of hilarity we hear grumblings of race riots between the Children of the Sun and the Yendri and the whisper of a Key of Unmaking. The Yendri and the older races (demons, etc.) have always despised the Children of the Sun, for they breed like rabbits (they don't have any conception of birth control) and they decimate the land they settle on like a plague of locusts (they don't have any conception of crop rotation either), and the decision by a real estate company to build a new development on Yendri holy ground is not taken well. But just as events are coming to a head in Salesh, Lord Ermenwyr abducts Smith for a boat trip to rescue his sister Svnae, of the short story "The Ruby Incomparable." The trip does not go as planned, nor is Lord Ermenwyr being entirely honest with Smith; and ultimately the gods get involved in what quickly ramps up to an end-of-the-world scenario. While that may make the third section seem a more traditional fantasy plots, the effect is anything but. The forces arrayed on either side of the conflict have very just points. We are told from the first page that the Children of the Sun are "an energetic, sanguine, and mechanically minded people. . . They were consequently given to sins of an ecological nature. . ." How much, then, can we blame them for their ignorance, even when the consequences are dire? How much is that blame lessened if there are those who could enlighten them, but choose instead to withdraw or get violent? Baker provides no easy answers for the reader, and that is why I must give this my
I can't believe this book isn't any more popular than it is. The environmentally UN-friendly and basically immoral Children of the Sun remind me a lot of what our society has become, but Kage Baker doesn't harp on the bad too much. The characters in this book will have you rolling your eyes and rolling in laughter. The fun starts right away and is exciting until the end with constant giggles throughout! This is a fantastic fantasy and I'd recommend it to just about anyone!