Anvil of the World
I came into this book woefully uninformed. The information I saw on Kage Baker led me to believe that her science fiction talks about Very Serious Things, and perhaps even contains A Message. Anvil of the World is fantasy, a genre that naturally lends itself to a certain amount of pompous rhetoric. I somehow managed to avoid reading even the dust jacket before starting, which happens sometimes, and I fully expected this to be a regular epic fantasy, complete with the usual weighty themes. My first clue that I was sorely mistaken probably should have come within the first paragraph, as Baker marches straight into deadpan comments about emphysema and festivals involving respiratory masks.
I am fairly dense however, and nothing tripped my humor meter. Even after all of the principles were introduced and numerous running gags started, I blundered along unawares. It wasn’t until late in the first story that I finally figured out what was going on. (The book is comprised of three sequential novellas.) By the time the second story got underway, I was prepared for the mayhem. Then in the third, Baker smoothly switches gears, going in a heavier direction that more closely matched my original expectations. This last change of pace doesn’t completely exclude the silliness though, so Anvil loses none of its charm.
This is not to say that the book is naught but a bag of har hars. Laughs are a major part of the experience, but hardly the only one, because Baker leaves a solid core of intelligence at the center of things. She has taken an assortment of fantasy cliches, mixed in a smattering of social commentary, then turned the Absurdity Dial up a few notches. Those who are into that sort of thing can chuckle at the steady supply of trope subversions (child of destiny, man with a dark past, capricious gods, etc.). People who want A Message can either stand and cheer or be offended, though it’s all delivered with wink and a few extra grains of salt. Those who want snappy dialogue are in for a treat.
Like most worthwhile fiction, Anvil has memorable and engaging characters, as well as quality world building. People thrown together more or less by chance at the beginning develop relationships with each other and, while I hate to say “the character grows,” they do react to their surroundings and evolve. As those relationships strengthen and the characters learn more about each other, the reader is pulled inexorably along; it would be a hard hearted person indeed who couldn’t find a soft spot for Mr. Smith, the former assassin, or Mrs. Smith, the wholly-unrelated-to-Mr. Smith chef. I haven’t even started on about the sexy nurse, though maybe it’s best that I don’t. (I will say that there are certain things Baker gets away with here that would be instantly more offensive in the hands of a male. It has a lot more to do with skill and timing, I think, but if a dude said some of the things Baker says, I would probably react with an “Ewwww” instead of a laugh. Something about a female gently mocking the Male Gaze works in the book.)
A few of my blogging friends have written glowing reviews of Anvil, bloggers I tend to agree with about a lot of bookish things. I’m sure there are people out there who didn’t like it, but there are also people out there who don’t like pie. When I tally up my books at the end of the year, I fully expect Anvil to make the Top Ten. It’s funny, which is nice, but it is intelligently funny. Behind the yuks are some expert trope manipulations and genuinely likable characters. The only sad part of it all is that the ending doesn’t lend itself to sequels. (I guess that doesn’t matter now, since there wouldn’t be any regardless, but still.) Baker has apparently written other books in the same world though, with some of the same characters, so I will have to seek those out. I want to know more about everyone and spend more time inside their lives. I tend to be a bit jaded and cynical anymore with my story consumption, but this is a book that melted my icy, shriveled heart.
Rating: Hoffenheim. This is a German club that went from deep in the lower divisions to contending for Bundesliga titles, after a hometown boy made good bought the team and turned them into winners. Yes, there is a certain element of buying championships involved, but this is still a heartwarming and lovable tale.