Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The House of the Rising Stag

The House of the Stag is one of the most original fantasy novels that I've read in years.  It contains some pretty standard tropes, like magic and quests and curses and castles, but more so than any other modern novel I can think of, it directly explores the space between modern fantasy and its cultural predecessors: myths, fables, and religion.  HotS is a fantasy novel that manages to feel like something entirely different, and because of that is completely charming and fascinating.


One of the things I liked best about this book was how it shifts literary style throughout the novel.  It doesn't slip around in an ad-hoc manner; rather, each section picks a unique idiom, and then sticks with that voice throughout.

The prologue essentially narrates a series of hieroglyphs.  We learn the story of a peaceful tribe that lived in a valley; how they were attacked and enslaved by ferocious horsemen; how a prophet arrived to provide hope to the people; and how two brothers followed different paths to stop the horsemen, and the tragic ends reached by each one.  Everything here is very simply and very powerful, such as the utter evil of the riders or the pure determination of Gard.

The first long section is framed by a series of bureaucratic records.  These describe Gard's life as a slave, denoting the moments when he was reassigned to different duties or assigned to a master.  The bulk of the story is told in conventional third-person limited omniscient narration, allowing us access to Gard's perspective as he puzzles out the system that holds him captive.

Now, you can read this part in a straight-forward manner, and get a kick out of a great story.  This may have been my favorite section of the book, and it's fun to cheer for Gard in his quest.  However, it's fascinating to think of this story as something that has been reconstructed.  In the prologue, you can imagine someone seeing those cave drawings, and then inventing a story to explain them.  Similarly, in the first chapter, you can imagine someone stumbling across the slave record book, noticing the unusual assignments given to Slave 4372301, and then constructing a narrative that would connect those dots and tell a story.  This is a pattern that repeats throughout the book: small, rather direct data points string throughout a chapter, and a much richer and more interesting story grows up around them.

The next, much shorter chapter shifts into a first-person narration.  Here we learn first-hand the story of how the Prophet's prediction of a savior child was proven true, how that child led the people to freedom, and what happened to the people on the other side of the mountains.  Here, it's pretty impossible to not think of religious stories when reading about the events.  There are obvious parallels to Christianity - you have a prophet, a message of peace, deliverance from a land of oppression, a pure child with no father (or, in this telling, mother) who offers salvation.  Now, I don't think that this is meant to be a satire of Christianity - it's far too respectful for that.  It's kind of a sly subversion in some ways, particularly as the story progresses.  Mostly, I think what the author is enjoying most here is seeing how real events get turned into stories.  I mean, if you were to, say, travel back in time and follow around John the Baptist for his career, you would see far more of him than is captured in the Bible.  He must have said thousands of things, encountered tens of thousands of people, lived an incredibly rich and varied life.  We don't see all of that, though: all that is left to us of John the Baptist are a few chapters in the New Testament.  So: what was the point at which the physical reality of the person of John the Baptist transmuted into the prosodic snapshot of him that we see in the Bible?  What was the result of that transformation?  Did people who knew John argue about the meaning of his statements?  Did they dispute which Gospels reflected him more or less accurately?  In the course of House of the Stag, you can witness that kind of process taking place, and it's fascinating to watch.


After this, we return to Gard's story, which once again is a third-person limited omniscient narration framed with an external set of data points.  Except here, those data points aren't primary source material: instead, Gard's story here is presented as a play.  The curtain rises, actors stride upon the stage, and the audience listens raptly to learn of the Master of the Mountain.  The body of this story also focuses upon the theater in a variety of ways.  Gard now lives in a state of freedom and exile, and must disguise himself in order to survive.  He learns how to speak and act like the Children of the Sun.  Later, he learns how to actually act - he joins a theatrical company and auditions for the role of the hero.  He is a great success.  Then he falls into the role of the Dark Lord.  He is an even greater success.

This is, of course, SO meta.  Gard is a perfect antihero, and is both the hero (brave, determined, faithful to friends, liberator) and the villain (demon, tricky, deceitful, violent) throughout the book.  We can already sense much of this tension by this point in the book, and the play doesn't just reflect Gard's person, it also predicts what will happen for the rest of the book.

I think that this was the first part of the story where humor started to creep in.  I'd enjoyed the book up until now, but this is the first time I remember actually chuckling at some of it.  It isn't in-your-face funny, like Terry Pratchett.  It's just... really meta, really knowing, really wry.  Gard himself can be pretty funny, and grows more so when he starts making friends and finds love.

Speaking of which: once the curtain falls on this chapter, the next one moves us back towards the Yendri.  Now the story focuses on the Child, who has now grown into a woman and, in the absence of the Prophet, become the leader of the people.  The framing device here is a historical record: some monks, presumably many generations in the future, have collected what is essentially a Gospel.  This tells the story of the people, but is one step removed from the primary sources: we aren't hearing directly from the Child, or one of the disciples, but rather from someone who has heard the stories of what happened there, probably soon after the events occurred, and put together this narrative.  Once again, we're in pretty fascinating postmodern territory here.  The end of this chapter is particularly great, as it describes how the handwriting of this account changes towards the end, abruptly shifting tone.  That reminds me of, say, the end of the Book of Mark, which had a section added to the very end after its earliest version was written.

The religious parallels are back here and stronger than before.  If the first part of the Child's story was Old Testament in tone - prophecy, deliverance, the promised land - this section is pure New Testament, and more specifically, smack dab in the epistles.  As the people grow in number and gradually scatter, dissension arises among the disciples.  All claim to love and obey the Child, but each has their own ideas about how to organize themselves, whether to arm themselves, how to deal with other tribes, whether to trade, whether to profit.  The Child speaks with them, but after a while is compelled to begin writing letters to express her teachings to her far-flung followers.  It's impossible to avoid thinking of Paul's exhortations here.  Even the subject matter is often the same: scolding people for quarreling with one another, reminding them of what is important, urging them to stay focused on important spiritual matters and not grow distracted by the world's temptations.

That said, this is one of the parts where there might be a little satire taking place.  I'm not sure if I can really talk about the "faith" or the religion of the Yendri.  It's mainly devotion to the Child, who in turn promotes uplifting teachings: kindness to one another, love of beauty, and so on.  Of course, many people will say that there wasn't a religion of Christianity while Christ was alive; the religion only came after He left, and His followers were left to argue over His teachings amongst themselves.  In this view, we can see the Yendri "faith" as something that is being born within the book, that will later be codified and become a mystical, religious following, rather than responding to the person right before them.

Anyways: the satire.  One way in which the Child is the polar opposite of Paul is when it comes to the nature of the world's temptations.  Paul famously wrote that it would be better if all were like him (i.e., celibate), and to this day many people struggle over how to interpret his writings on the status of women within the church.  In contrast, The Prophet in this book is serially UNcelibate, joyfully sleeping with any of his female disciples who wish it.  The Child is a reluctant virgin, but she rejects the teachings of her disciples who argue that men should remain apart from women.

So.  Lots of interesting religious parallels going on.

The final section of the book finally brings together all the plot threads throughout the book: The Blessed Child, Cursed Gard, the mages of the mountain, the armies of the Children of the Sun, hordes of demons, the Trevani.  Everything comes together, and - it all works.  It all clicks.  It has the excitement and drama of a modern fantasy novel, but by this point it has earned much of the depth and weight that we tend to attach to older and more traditional literary styles.  And it's funny, too.  You can almost imagine a situational comedy focusing on the grumpy Dark Lord in a skull-adorned castle, and his clever wife who tries to make things better.

I really don't want to give anything away, even in a mega spoilers block, but I was thoroughly impressed by the sheer storytelling prowess on display.  I don't think there was a wasted scene anywhere: everything serves to heighten the drama, to entertain us, to propel the story towards its inevitable conclusion while keeping the nature of that conclusion shrouded from sight.


In case you can't tell yet, I really, really liked this book.  I hadn't even heard of Kage Baker before Scott tossed me a reference to this book (thanks, Scott!), and now I'm smitten.  From the little that I've heard, it sounds like her first fantasy book was quite a bit different from this one.  I'll still check it out at some point.  Now that Baker has written The House of the Stag, I kind of doubt that anyone else will try to cover this same ground; she's done such a great job of playing with the forms, content, and style of non-literary fantasy that it would be almost impossible to top her.

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