This novel fits into the fantasy fiction genre but is not by any means just a typical fantasy fiction book. Yes, it takes place in another place and another time. Yes, there is magic and demons abound. Yes, there is plenty of fighting and bloodshed along with romance. Even so, our protagonist in this story is an unusual one, and his story is a tapestry of many colors and threads. I found it enjoyable and entertaining. It is a shame that Kage Baker is no longer with us to share still more chapters of the tale.
Here is what the author’s website says of the book:
Set in the same universe as The Anvil of the World, this is the story of Gard, a foundling raised by an innocent forest people. Their innocence is lost fairly soon, when invaders settle in their quiet valley and enslave them. Gard and his adoptive family take refuge in the hills, as a holy man rises to counsel peaceful resistance. Gard, however, begins a one-man guerrilla campaign that ends with his expulsion from his family and his world. Entirely unconscious of cliches, he sets out on the Hero’s Journey.
The role of Hero doesn’t come easily to Gard, however. He progresses from slave to gladiator to sorcerer, and escapes from being sacrificed only by double-crossing his masters. He does time as an actor with a penniless troupe and serves as a mercenary in the army of an unlucky duke, both of which experiences teach him that the Villain is the one who gets respect. Being a sensible man, Gard promptly acquires a suit of black armor, a demon army, and an impregnable fortress with skull-shaped turrets. He thenceforth enjoys an improved standard of living.
Meanwhile, back in the quiet valley, years of peaceful resistance finally pay off and a Promised Child is born, enabling the holy man to lead his people out of the valley to freedom. The Promised Child grows up, however, and she discovers that being a living Saint with the genuine ability to heal the sick and raise the dead does not necessarily guarantee personal fulfillment– rather the reverse. Undeterred, she continues to minister to her thankless people… and then one day her path crosses Gard’s.
All in all, The House of the Stag is about the masks we assign to Heroes and Villains, about the way we tell stories and what we expect of the characters in them. Can a Dark Lord and a Saint find happiness together? What do they tell their children? Where do they go when they want to take a holiday? What happens when an impregnable fortress’s plumbing backs up?
This book has been in the works since approximately 1964, and has been revised and reimagined many times. Episodes from it have been told in blank verse, as an illuminated manuscript, and a failed first novel. It is neither prequel, sequel nor the beginning of a multi-book story arc. You can read it without getting hand cramps, because it isn’t four inches thick. Nevertheless, it has battles, demons, monsters, sex, comedy, tragedy, birth, death, disillusionment, faith, magic. Something, I hope, for everyone.