Or Else My Lady Keeps the Key by Kage Baker
As a survival characteristic, I was programmed to catch every conceivable disease going. That way, I would get it all out of the way early on and have immunity for the rest of my life. This meant that, as a child, I spent many weeks flat on my back, vaguely contemplating death a couple of times, while my mother, desperate to distract me from my physical woes, read the classics of fiction to me. It seems I was destined to be a well-read survivor. So, my encounter with Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson came early on, closely followed by Verne’s Lighthouse at the End of the World and Mysterious Island. This gave me a fascination for stories about the sea and pirates. The discovery of Conan Doyle’s Tales of Pirates and Blue Water simply added fuel to the flames and, before you could say, “Long John Silver”, I was off with Captain Sharkey and enjoying the spookiness of the Polestar. Yet, even with a fair wind behind you, the repetition of the tropes becomes boring and interest wanes over time. One waits for someone to come along to reinvigorate or reinvent the genre so that the same dishes can be enjoyed all over again.
A brave attempt was made by William S. Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan to produce a musical entertainment, Victorian style, in The Pirates Of Penzance Or The Slave Of Duty. J. M. Barrie also takes firm aim at the clichés by having his pirates become the butt of Peter Pan’s youthful exuberance. Hollywood briefly entertained by making the thugs debonair and daring with Errol Flynn and others bringing wit and charm to the roles. Then, equal opportunities bore fruit with Jean Peters and Geena Davis swashing their buckles along with the men. More recently the Muppets and Johnny Depp have been entertaining rather than frightening. Along the way, there was more serious fictional meat from C. S. Forester and Patrick O’Brian who combine historical accuracy and intelligent storytelling. While others engaged in more overt silliness by transplanting pirates to science fictional settings with Edgar Rice Burroughs and others relocating the tropes to Alien Mains. But, to my mind, with the possible exception of The Pyrates by George MacDonald Fraser which brings a brilliant over-the-top lunacy to the subject, no-one has really “rescued” the pirate novel.
Thus, it was with some trepidation that I picked up Or Else My Lady Keeps the Key by Kage Baker. When she is on form, Baker is a highly entertaining writer and the sustained inventiveness of the Company saga which does, incidentally, have a pirate element to it, encouraged me to set prejudice to one side. If someone can reinvent the “cyborg” tropes as a time-travel device, then this author can single-handedly do something to breathe new life into old pirate stories. Unfortunately, my hopes were dashed within the first few pages. Indeed, as I continued to read, I simply grew more angry. This is nothing more than an outline an author might dash off in haste to prove to a willing publisher that a book can be delivered on the given topic — everyone expecting that, upon acceptance, the author will then sit down to more seriously “write” the book. There is no attempt to flesh out the catalogue of clichéd plot devices. Everything is flat, simplistic rather than simple, completely devoid of context and setting, and one dimensional where we might have expected two or even three dimensions. There are no interior monologues to illuminate character and motivation, no omniscient author to give us hints and insights. It is a plot, with some dialogue and the minimum possible number of words to get to the end.
I note the irony because, in other posts, I rant about the failure of editors to take out their blue pencils and cut away all the dead wood. Here we have the exact reverse. The publisher should have said, “Thanks, but no thanks” to the manuscript as delivered. This is not a book that should be allowed out into the real world at $35 without a health warning. In the good old, bad old days when editors did cut chunks of redundant prose out of already overblown novels, these excisions did appear in print but more honestly labelled. Thus, for example, Stephen Donaldson was told to cut down his first draft of The Illearth War, the resulting deletions being picked up and published by Underwood Miller as The Gilden Fire. But there was no attempt to deceive the reading public. This was for the die-hard fans as deleted content. Unfortunately, Subterranean Press has chosen to advertise Or Else My Lady Keeps the Key as an “exclusive pirate novel” as if this is some special event. I despair of publishers. They talk themselves into contracts with “big name” authors and then get caught with the sorry task of having to promote something not even third-rate to get their money back on the advance.
Well, as a sucker who shelled out $35 for this drivel, I can only advise you to wait until the word-of-mouth spreads. This will soon be hitting the second-hand market for a few dollars. If you really do feel the need to see just how bad this is, you need not waste any serious sum of money to find out. In mid 2009, I see Amazon.com has two copies going at $5 plus shipping. That’s about the right price to pay.