Kate reviewed Kage Baker’s The Anvil of the World and instantly made me want to buy it just by excerpting the open paragraphs, which I’ll re-excerpt here:
Troon, the golden city, sat within high walls on a plain a thousand miles wide. The plain was golden with barley.
The granaries of Troon were immense, towering over the city like giants, taller even than its endlessly revolving windmills. Dust sifted down into its streets and filled its air in the Month of the Red Moon and in every other month, for that matter, but most especially in that month, when the harvest was brought in from the plain in long lines of creaking carts, raising more dust, which lay like a fine powder of gold on every dome and spire and harvester’s hut.
All of the people of Troon suffered from chronic emphysema.
Priding itself as it did, however, on being the world’s breadbasket, Troon put up with the emphysema. Wheezing was considered refined, and the social event of the year was the Festival of Respiratory Masks.
As you’d guess from that opening, the books show an obvious Vance-ian influence, from language to sense of humor to place names. Baker isn’t writing Vance pastiche, though — the main text of the book is written in a more naturalistic tone, and her characters are (sometimes) more psychologically realistic and less archetypal. At times, in fact, she seems to be writing something more like Pratchett than Vance (the race conflict and murder mystery stories wouldn’t have been put of place in Discworld books, and neither would the protagonist’s character).
You’ll note that I wrote “stories” above. This isn’t billed as a collection anywhere, and it’s not visibly divided into distinct stories, but there are two obvious points in the book where the plot wraps up, the chapter ends, and the next chapter starts up months later and introduces a new plot. I’m not sure if Baker was trying to do something like Vance’s The Dying Earth (which is similarly, though less covertly, composed of shorter stories) or what, but the effect of the unlabelled story breaks is odd if you’re not expecting them. You, however, will have no such problems, as I’ve been kind enough to forewarn you.
All in all, though, a pleasant surprise. It’s distinctive humorous (but not silly) fantasy with a sword-and-sorcery flair and overtones of Vance, well worth seeking out by someone who wants something other than the gritty and därk epic fantasy that makes up too much of the bookstore shelves these days.