Every once in a while you come across a book that raises the bar, that blows the competition out of the water. Some years back, that book was Harry Potter (or books, to be more accurate); now, Kage Baker's The House of the Stag has done what few books can ever do.
The House of the Stag is a modern fairytale that chronicles the struggle of a young man after his people, the Yendri, are invaded by a barbaric, horseback-riding people called the Riders. As his people are rounded up and killed or turned into slaves, a strange figure appears called the Star, who takes on the role of a prophet. But Gard refuses to accept the "sit and do nothing" stance of the Star and takes matters into his own hands. When his actions get him accused as a murderer by his own people, he finds himself exiled and flung out into the wider, more dangerous world beyond. There he discovers new cultures and customs, and important information about his past, all while vowing to gain the power and influence he needs to destroy the Riders once and for all and free his people forever.
Baker's novel is an astonishing fantasy tale, with rich detail, fantastic world building, enjoyable, complex characters, and a unique postmodern structure that is as readily aware of its fairytale roots as it is of its emotionally impacted literary attention to issues of (post)colonialism, slavery, and racism. That's a mouthful, for sure, but The House of the Stag deserves such long-winded praise. This book influenced me so much that I actually used it for a second senior thesis during my final quarter at the University of California, Santa Cruz. I now regret having never read anything else by Ms. Baker, because her writing is impeccable, her characters are realistically flawed, and her world is stunning in its design. You can't ask for much more in a stand alone fantasy novel.
The most difficult thing about reviewing this book is trying to find the cons of Baker's story. I loved the book from start to finish, which leaves me with only one complaint: the chapters are too long. A pointless complaint? Yes, but to say that any book is perfect is to tell a lie. The House of the Stag is not a perfect novel, but it is certainly close.
The House of the Stag is the kind of novel for anyone who wants something more in their fantasy. This is not your typical tale of elves and magic, talking animals. It's a modernized fairytale replete with the escapist power of epic fantasy. As such, lovers of virtually any kind of fantasy should enjoy The House of the Stag. Baker's book is, in my opinion, a one of a kind fantasy treat.