Kage Baker’s The House of the Stag is a stand-alone novel set in the same world as The Anvil of the World and The Bird of the River. In this story, the pacifist Yendri tribe has been enslaved by cruel invaders, and the half-demon foundling named Gard is the only one who will fight back. When he’s exiled from the tribe, Gard is captured by mages who live underground and set to work with their bound demon slaves. With some advice from his fellow slaves, he remakes his own image and ends up styling himself as “The Dark Lord.” Meanwhile, back in the tribe, a prophet arises who promises the coming of a Saint who will lead the Yendri to a promised land. The separate plotlines are eventually united when The Saint meets The Dark Lord.
My summary of The House of the Stag doesn’t do justice to the novel — it explains, ostensibly, what the novel is about, but I don’t pick up one of Kage Baker’s books or stories because I think the plot sounds interesting. I pick it up because it was written by Kage Baker. There is much more to her work than the “plot” — she knows how to tell a story. What I like best about Baker’s stories is her creative world-building and her sense of humor. Her stories are unique, peculiar, smart, and often very funny in that dry deadpan way that I love. Her style is similar to Jack Vance’s, though without the elaborate use of language that is part of his humor.
Despite some serious subject matter (slavery, racism, colonialism) and plenty of darkness, violence and gore, The House of the Stag is delightfully humorous. On his way to becoming The Dark Lord, Gard becomes a gladiator, a gardener, and an actor. He collects fashion and personality advice as he goes, keeping his thoughts mostly to himself and often limiting his speech to epigrammatic replies of “Yes,” “Oh,” and “Thank you.” (Somehow, this is very funny.) Along the way, he meets many colorful characters such as the werewolf butler who collects celadon porcelain dishes and the female theater groupies who wait outside the Dark Lord’s dressing room. Baker never overdoes these bits of humor — their subtlety is what makes them so funny.
Too little of Kage Baker’s work has been produced on audio, so when I saw that Audible Frontiers had recently released The House of the Stag, I snatched it up. It’s read by Sean Crisden, whose voices are perfect for Baker’s dry humor. He’s absolutely hilarious in the scene where the theater manager is explaining the stock characters of epics to Gard.
I didn’t need the plotline about the promised child, even though it eventually joined Gard’s story. Gard’s adventures were so fascinating that I was always disappointed when the POV switched, but these interludes didn’t last long, fortunately. It’s rare that I say this, but I was sad when The House of the Stag was finished. I wanted more and I felt again the loss of such a brilliant writer.