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The House of the Stag    by Kage Baker order for
House of the Stag
by Kage Baker
Order:  USA  Can
Tor, 2009 (2008)
Hardcover, Softcover

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

Kage Baker, best known for her satirical Company time travel series (in which Dr. Zeus Incorporated plucks people out of time and transforms them into immortal cyborgs to do its bidding in different eras) also writes excellent fantasy like The Anvil of the World and now The House of the Stag. This latest is an epic fantasy with a deep vein of irony, in a style that reminds me of some of Dave Duncan's best work.

Indeed the story generally follows the structure of an Epic outlined to the hero (of sorts) Gard after he briefly joins (as in Sabatini's Scaramouche) a troupe of actors, and inadvertently becomes their lead player. Gard is told that 'Epics never change. Which is to say, the plot details may vary, but the stock characters remain the same firm favorites' - the Hero Born in Obscurity, the Girl Disguised as a Boy, the Faithful Servant, the Princess, Happy Companions, the Wizard and the Dark Lord.

Half-demon Gard is fostered by a gentle forest people. They thrive until their lands are invaded by savage Riders who enslave all they can capture. Gard, who fights back against the invaders, is rejected by his own people after he inadvertently harms his foster brother, who had hoped to take them over the mountains to an idyllic safety. It's their magical, blind savior Star (a singer and healer, believed by Gard to be a fraud) and his prophesied Child who end up doing that.

Gard is captured by a colony of mages who are effectively imprisoned (a good thing, given their natures) under the mountain. They enslave other races - from demons to neighboring peoples whom they capture - to do menial labor and fight in the arena for their amusement. Gard ascends from the depths - as a legless slave turning a crank all day - to be trained as a gladiator, and eventually as a mage (the latter due to the whim of the spoiled and vicious but powerful Lady Pirihine).

Gard brings the mountain down around his cruel former masters and escapes. He roams, persistently pursued by Pirihine's minions, and eventually sets himself up as a Dark Lord (of sorts) in a mountain fastness, surrounded by demon friends. His original people now thrive again. Though Star has left them, they worship the Child as she grows to maturity. But, as in all religions in human history, factions develop with power struggles, reinterpretation and questioning of the original doctrine. Child attempts to keep her people to their original natures - but then her path crosses Gard's and everything changes.

Kage Baker is a marvelous storyteller with a wonderful sense of irony, and The House of the Stag is a remarkable read, in which half-demon Gard is both Hero and Dark Lord. It's not to be missed by any fan of fantasy (especially those who enjoy an Epic, traditional or not).

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