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Not Less Than Gods by Kage Baker

You know something is wrong when you desperately want a book to be good. Pursuing metaphors of the sea, you feel waves of rationality washing up on the shores of disappointment and not receding as a full moon of gravity-manipulating proportions keeps the tide moving ever higher.

So it is with a heavy heart that I report another dud from Kage Baker. I wish I could write a better epitaph. But, instead of a brilliant swan song, we have the Danny Kay “And (s)he went with a quack and a waddle and a quack” — two quacks already? And we’re still only in the second paragraph!

Not Less Than Gods is a depressing travelogue through old landscapes. An author on form illuminates the journey with wit and intelligence, pointing out details lovingly researched before we set out, making the tedium between stops bearable. This is what is now called an “origin” story where we look back in the life of a fictional character to see where he came from and what forces shaped his early life. As someone who has read almost every word of the Company series, both novels and shorter stories, I always found the ideas interesting even though the execution could be a bit clunky — a word much loved by those who write lit. crit. meaning inelegant. So, it’s an “interesting” idea to explore the origin of Edward Alton Bell-Fairfax except the first section is essentially a rewrite of Alec Checkerfield’s arrival on the scene — fortunately without the support of pirate-centred early learning devices. This time, the absentee parents are replaced by a well-meaning servant who acts as a “father figure” to fill his young protégé’s head with stories of military adventurism.

Nevertheless, despite any real novelty, the early years are paradise compared to the tedium of training by the Gentleman’s Speculative Society. And then we are off on the mission. Yawn. This is all going through the motions. Tick box for entering Country A. Stuff happens. Tick box when leaving. For all its faults, there was more life and inventiveness in The Women of Nell Gwynne’s with some steampunishness to tickle our fancy.

This is the second recent book from Subterranean Press relying on Baker’s name to sell a book. Or Else My Lady Keeps the Key was a sketch waiting for an author to bring it up to a level when it could stand in the light of day and not cause everyone to flinch away in embarrassment. Not Less Than Gods is the reverse problem of an author spewing out words in the hope an editor will tell her which should remain after the blue pencil has done its work. In other words, lurking inside this lumbering hulk, there is a potentially interesting read. With the right hands on the tiller, this could have come into a safe harbour with all flags flying. It would have been a great way of remembering an author. As it is, this is definitely not to be attempted in its expensive limited edition form. If you are interested, wait for the paperback to hit the secondhand stores.

For my other reviews of Kage Baker, see: Sons of HeavenThe Empress of MarsHouse of the Stag, The Bird of the River, Not Less Than Gods, and Or Else My Lady Keeps the Key.

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