Tuesday, September 9, 2003

'Anvil' mixes satire with fantasy

By Jeff Suess
The Cincinnati Enquirer

It begins with 144 glass butterflies in holistic egg-shaped packaging, and ends with, well, a happy ending.

In between is Kage Baker's engaging fantasy The Anvil of the World, filled with bizarre characters, magic, demons, assassins, fried eel, and a duel using Fatally Verbal Abuse.

The Anvil of the World can be favorably compared to Terry Pratchett's Discworld series; there is even a European flavor to it. Every page adds a complication in a never-ending series of adventures, though it doesn't always forward the plot.

Instead of one arcing storyline, Anvil is broken into three main plots, alternately reminiscent of a western, a murder mystery and a pirate tale. That can be a drawback for those seeking epic fantasy. But Anvil is original and funny.

The hero is Smith, a former assassin trying to make a new life away from all the death - and not having much luck.

Smith takes a job as a caravan master transporting a motley crew of passengers to the seaside city Salesh, only to be attacked by assassins along the way. Most characters have secrets (and at least half go by the alias Smith), so Smith doesn't know who or what the assassins are after.

To add to the imbroglio, an annoying passenger, the decadent half-demon Lord Ermenwyr, even has pacifists trying to kill him.

The caravan business derails so Smith becomes an innkeeper in the middle story. It's festival time (think Mardi Gras without the beads - or any other garments), and a tabloid writer is poisoned in his room. Smith must solve the murder or fail his hotel inspection. Then Lord Ermenwyr checks in to hide from an angry mage.

The third act is a quest to find the Key of Unmaking, which could wipe out Smith's race. Pointed social commentary is woven throughout the novel, focusing on environmentalism, race relations, and religion, as seen through the prism of satiric fantasy.

Baker writes her charming characters with obvious affection. They each have unique voices and traits: Mrs. Smith (no relation to Smith), the gourmet cook and mother hen; Burnbright, the message runner; Willowspear of the Yendri forest people; and Balnshik, Lord Ermenwyr's seductive nurse.

But it is Lord Ermenwyr who arrests the reader's attention. He is offensive, lewd, bossy, conceited and a lot of fun, especially during the duel.

There is enough creativity in Anvil to spawn further adventures for Smith and company.

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