Baker, Kage. The House of the Stag.

NY: Tor, 2008.

This is the second volume of the fantasy trilogy that began with The Anvil of the World, and it’s a far better book. It’s also not a sequel but a sort of prequel, and you still must have read the first book or you’ll miss the import of nine-tenths of what’s going on in this one. Every world, real or fictional, includes “furniture” — the history, cultural evolution, mythology, and religion that provide the background to present-day life.

That certainly was the case in the first volume and most readers undoubtedly accepted it as part of good writing but didn’t think much about it. But now Baker takes us back a couple of generations and shows us the reality behind those stories and their social milieu. (And if one had known that was what the author was up to, one might have paid closer attention.) Gard is one of the peaceable Earth-Born, but since he’s of mixed race (being half-demon), when the Riders appear and enslave his people, his reaction is far different from the pained but pacifist acceptance they show. Eventually, he finds he must leave (or is forced into exile, it’s not entirely clear from his own viewpoint) and that’s only the beginning of his adventures, first as a slave himself, then as a gladiator in the arena, as a stage actor in traditional theatrical epics, as army drill sergeant to a squad of misfits, . . . and in a further, quite different role which I won’t give away. Alternating with this narrative is another that takes us through the evolution of the Yendri religion, filling in some of the reasons why the forest folk in the first book act the way they do, and why there are antithetical factions within their culture. There’s drama and romance and heavily nuanced character development, as well as the author’s well-known tongue-in-cheek humor. (This is especially the case with the theater bits, where Baker undoubtedly plays off her own thespian experiences.) I only wish one knew in advance to be patient in wading through the sloppy and episodic plotting of the first volume in order to get properly to this one.

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