Kage Baker, The Anvil of the World (TOR, 2004)
What do you get when you take an assassin sick of killing, a petulant half-demon and his hubba-hubba aide "Nursie," a barely pubescent girl who would leave a marathoner in the dust, and a cook so amazing she could make gruel taste like foie gras? The beginnings of The Anvil of the World, one of the most enjoyable romps I've had between the pages in a very long time.
The center of the story focuses on Smith, a member of the race called Children of the Sun. He's taken the name in order to remain hidden from his past as a hired killer. Seems he never liked the work, he just happened to be really, really good at killing people. So he hides out in the dusty city of Troon, where tuberculosis is hip and one of the hottest parties of the year is the Festival of Respiratory Masks. His cousin offers him a job as a caravan leader, and he's so desperate for work that he decides to take the job, even though he never led a caravan in his life. And that's just the beginning of things to come for Smith. . . .
This book is divided into three sections, making it feel more like three novellas strung together chronologically than one continuous story. But while the three mini-tales could hold their own separately, they fit together nicely. The first section deals with Smith's first job as caravan leader. His maiden voyage includes a cast of characters that include those already mentioned above. In addition, there's a horde of glass butterflies to transport and a family with children so loud you'll want to thank the next family that brings a screaming newborn to the movies for being quieter in comparison. Smith's task is to deliver everything and everyone safely. But with killers gunning for a member (or members) of his party, will they all get there in peace, or in pieces?
The second section takes place some time after the caravan's arrival in Salesh-by-the-Sea. Smith, along with several members of the caravan, has stayed in town to run the Hotel Grandview. It's Festival time in Salesh, but when an infamous gossip-monger turns up dead in Room 2, Smith has until the end of the Festival to figure out who did it, or they all might find themselves out on the street. Smith has his work cut out for him, since the Festival celebrates the union of two gods, and the "joyous couplings" going on everywhere don't exactly make looking for a killer very easy.
The last section deals with a new housing development for the "Manifest Destiny" filled Children of the Sun. All is not well, though; the ecologically minded, nature loving Yendri are upset because the chosen location is holy ground. But there's a Key of Unmaking that would destroy all Children, and poor Smith is the Child called upon to find it before anyone tries to see if it actually works.
This style, reminiscent of Terry Pratchett, works to keep the light, slightly off center feel of the book, while slipping in the author's points of view. My favorite happens when the spoiled rotten half-demon Lord Ermenwyr tells Smith that the Lord's father, the (tamed-by-marriage) Master of the Mountain, has taken to running an insurance company. "There are only so many ways you can keep your self-respect as a Lord of Evil when you can't break any laws."
Baker's lively style may at first have readers believing that this is just another toss-away story. But beneath its bouncy exterior, the author tackles serious issues like race relations, religion and environmental protection. She does it all with a light touch, often tongue-in-cheek. When trying to clear out the waste that has clogged the hotel's sewer pipes, Smith hears about a caustic, deadly chemical that could do the trick. After hearing that the pipes run into the ocean, which would send the poisonous sludge into the local ecosystem, he says, "No problem, then . . . Can we buy that stuff in bulk?"
Characters are well drawn and the story is fast paced without being rushed. The world Baker creates, along with its underlying mythologies, is just close enough to our own present day to make her insights into certain character's childlike self-interest hit close to home. Not enough to be uncomfortable mind you, but just enough for you to quickly notice what a good person you're not being. I think I'm going to start buying more biodegradable cleaners, for one.
The jacket description for this book says that Baker's Science Fiction stories " . . .have made her famous in SF." Well, if they read anything like Anvil does, I should hope so. I look forward to more fantasy offerings, hopefully with Smith and the other members of the Hotel Grandview -- and soon.