Home > Books > The House of the Stag by Kage Baker

The House of the Stag by Kage Baker

The very first quote included by the blurb writer on the dust jacket is from the Cincinnati Enquirer which says of The Anvil of the World, “. . .there is even a European flavor to it.” What were they thinking? European sensibilities are sudden death to anyone wishing to sell into the US market. There are thousands of seriously good authors working in the fields of science fiction, fantasy, horror and mystery, but their work is almost never translated into English. Even when the unthinkable does happen, sales figures resulting from half-hearted marketing prove that translations only sell into limited niche markets. So to associate a European “flavor” (sic) with a US author’s work is to give a kiss of death (in the Mafia sense of the expression). Unless, of course, this is intended only as a pump to the Special Relationship supposed to exist between the USA and Britain. This would inflate the publishing theory that literature apparently sharing the same language sells into all the markets where those languages are spoken. As if!

So here comes a humble European to view the work of an American author. The House of the Stag by Kage Baker follows in the same universe as her previous incursion into the world of high fantasy, The Anvil of the World. I will get the basic grouse out of the way at the beginning. Even at 350 pages, this book is too long. I despair of the modern art of editing. It should not be too hard for someone with sensibilities to take a blue pen to the dead bits, much as a topiarist might prune back the wild growth and allow a bush to be seen as a clean, simple and elegant delight to the eye. Authors have their interests and obsessions. There are times when they become self-indulgent, writing for themselves rather than for the good of the narrative. Editors are supposed to be the sentinels of taste, gently shepherding their charges towards the greatness that beckons. As it is. . .

So, here we are in the world of foundlings and demons, where a baby so casually abandoned in the moment of birth, may survive trials and tribulations to rise as a powerful mage. Simply stated, this has to be one of the more hackneyed tropes in high fantasy. Like Conan and others from the sword and sorcery worlds, the growing boy is enslaved but, learning fighting arts for the arena from a master warrior, becomes a weapon against those who call themselves masters. Displaying unexpected abilities with magic, he will be later become a mage and escape into a world of freedom. Fortunately, he is not a barbarian.

The mark of a good author is someone who defies the odds and transcends the ordinary to produce something better. In this instance, Baker succeeds. Although the raw material of initial plot threads is unpromising and she is allowed to spend too much time going through the weaponisation of the hero by Silverpoint, the set-up for the empowered hero to emerge into the larger world outside the mountain creates the right sense of anticipation. This opportunity is almost wasted by an excessive period in a theatre, assimilating the basic rules of characterisation. This translates what the hero absorbed in the arena (somewhat along the lines of the World Wrestling Foundation’s insistence on over-the-top personalities) into what it takes to become a leading man on the stage. However, once we put the tiresome treading of the boards behind us, Baker finally catches fire and maintains a tight control over the plotting and writing to arrive at a most satisfying conclusion. She never actually explains how or why the tribe happen to be held in an impenetrable valley, nor the origins of the hero, the Star or the Saint, nor how singing makes magic or the more general magical system of the mages works. With sly authorial winks and nods, she contrives to convince us that such explanations are redundant. All we can say with any confidence at the end is that the right team wins the day and is left to fight another day (should there be sequels, there is a chance for Ranwry’s status to become more clear). The only cavil I have is that, as a mother at bay, the Saint proves surprisingly powerless. She demonstrates significant magical abilities on a number of occasions, so it’s sad that a female author makes mother and child wait for a male hero to rescue them.

When she is on form, Baker conflates two pleasing skills: an ability to see beyond the obvious and find fresh ways of seeing the world, while maintaining a wry sense of humour about the situations in which she places her characters. There are genuine signs that she is having fun when allowing the plot to go where it will. There are also some interesting thoughts on the politics of health care. It seems this author is in favour of socialised medicine rather than a capitalist monopoly over drugs. As a mere European who has escaped the death camps of the NHS, I hesitantly agree with this American author, hoping this is not a kiss of death. Overall, this is a pleasing addition to the fantasy canon and while not quite the best book in the genre for 2008, it’s clearly one of the top ten reads and genuinely worth reading.

For my other reviews of Kage Baker, see: Sons of HeavenThe Women of Nell Gwynne’sEmpress of Mars, The Bird of the River, Not Less Than Gods, and Or Else My Lady Keeps the Key.

This novel was shortlisted for the World Fantasy Award 2009 for Best Novel.

  1. No comments yet.
  1. No trackbacks yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: