Kage Baker, The House of the Stag (Tor Books, 2008)
One of the things I find most alluring about reading fiction, especially speculative fiction, is immersing myself in another world. For the limited time that I am reading a novel, I find myself totally surrounded by the world and wanting to know more and more about it. What is its past? How did these characters come to be? How did this culture evolve? But a fictional world is only as extensive as its author's vision for it. This results in a bit of mystery around any world, even the most well drawn and developed world. There is, thus, always a tension between the desire of a reader and the reality of what the author can deliver.
Also, inevitably, there must always be a bit of a let-down, for a conceived world can never live up to a reader's expectations. Witness the disappointment of the recent Star Wars "prequels" that attempted to relate the story of how Annakin Skywalker fell and became Darth Vader. For years, Star Wars fans had only a handful of sentences telling them about the past. How romantic a vision of the Clone Wars we could create for ourselves! And how disappointing the reality turned out to be.
So it is with hesitation that I read a book that is a "prequel" to another book I've enjoyed. But when that "prequel" is by one of my favorite authors, I set aside the reluctance and dive right in. Kage Baker, in The House of the Stag, delivers us the background history of the Lord of the Mountain, the half-demon father of spoiled lordling Lord Ermenwyr, who we met in Baker's previous fantasy novel, The Anvil of the World.
The novel begins with an expectant couple from the pacifistic people, the Yendri, coming across a half-demon foundling on the very day of their first child's birth. The foundling, Gard, and the child, Ran, grow up together in the tranquil valley of the Yendri until one day the valley is taken over by the Mongol-like Riders. The Yendri naturally submit and the Riders ruthlessly turn them into slaves. To make matters worse, a Yendri holy man, known only as the Star, shows up on one of the valley's mountain sides and teaches the Yendri the ways of passivity. Gard, however, is not like his adopted people and instead wages a one-man guerilla war against the Riders. His actions, though, eventually lead to the death of his family and his exile from his people.
Gard is eventually found half-frozen on a mountain by a group of mages who have been cursed to live under that mountain. They take him down into their kingdom and make him one of the arena warriors whose job is to entertain them when they're not fighting internecine power wars with one another. While there, Gard learns the ways of the warrior and quickly excels, becoming the greatest warrior the arena has ever seen. Eventually, Gard is able to effect an escape. Freed from the mountain, he wanders to the land of the red-skinned Children of the Sun. He learns how to be a leader and also the power of showmanship, eventually setting himself up as the enigmatic Lord of the Mountain.
Because this is a "biography" of sorts, there isn't much in the way of plot tying the whole novel together (although there is a significant subplot that develops after Gard escapes from the mountain and one of his former jailers wants him back). Rather, the strength of this novel comes in the development of Gard's character from that of an angry youth to a father and husband (while also being a demon lord). The novel is picaresque and the structure of the chapters reflects this, with each chapter being another act in Gard's life.
One of the other strengths of this book is the different voices that narrate each of the chapters. In some, Baker uses the omniscient narrator that knowingly guides the reader through a scene, addressing the reader directly. In others, Baker employs such a tight focus on one character that it leaves one feeling like it was a first-person narrative. (Indeed, at first I wrote that some of the chapters were actually in first-person, but a check back at the book revealed this wasn't so.)
Because of its focus on the lives of just a handful of characters, this is not epic fantasy, but it feels like it should be because of the nature of the Lord of the Mountain's character. Therein lies a bit of a disappointment, but that was only short-term. Overall, this is an enjoyable novel that fills in the past of one of the more enigmatic characters of the land of the Yendri and the Children of the Sun.