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The Bird of the River by Kage Baker

Jacket art by Tom Kidd

So here we are with The Bird of the River by Kage Baker. It is set in the same universe as The Anvil of the World and The House of the Stag but is one of these happy authorial accidents rather than someone sitting down to write a sequel, i.e. you can read it without any knowledge of the other two books. Thinking about the circumstances, I suppose we should approach this as a potential swan song. As an aside, the idiom often has a quietly perverse interpretation. In theory, it should follow the reality which is that the best a Mute Swan can manage during its life is a venomous hissing and the odd honk but, in old folk tales, the sentimentalists often give it one beautiful note just before, or upon, death. Such is the power of a romantic imagination. The modern usage tends to celebrate a successful performer who manages to pull out one final act of magnificence, usually knowing it will be the last possible before death. When the audience is in on the secret, it makes the event all the more poignant, becoming a highly emotional way for everyone to say goodbye. We lose this impact in the written form because readers may come to a book many years later without knowing the background. In this instance, it is hard to predict how many full-length posthumous works we will see in print so, for now, let’s treat this as Ms Baker’s last.

This is a mystery masquerading as a fantasy novel. The headless body of a wealthy family’s son is found in the river, so the undercover PI works his passage on a river barge as it makes its way upstream clearing hazardous underwater obstructions. He hopes to track down the killer and recover the victim’s head — perhaps, like Moslems, the families of this world’s powerful elite prefer to have all the body parts collected together for a respectful burial. You also have to remember this is a fantasy and people are often beheaded for the best of reasons. When barbarian or demon hitmen of limited brainpower are involved, they take heads to prove they killed the right person. Anyway, the set-up has the young PI meet the young lady with keen eyes and surprising intelligence on the barge and they pair up to work out who done what to whom and why.

As I have commented before, Ms Baker may not have been one of the greatest prose stylists but, when on form, she could tell a good story. In part, she became a willing victim of the publishing industry. Obviously, when someone is throwing money at you, there’s a temptation to give the people what they want. In this and most other cases, the bean-counters want length, believing the buying public wants more words for their bucks. Hence, there has been a slow but steady inflation of the published lengths of “novels”. For them that can spin out a slight story and hold the readers’ interest, this is easy money. But for people like Ms Baker, this was a real challenge. She was excellent as a short story writer and turned in some top-class novelettes and novellas. But the novels could be very patchy when she struggled to find those extra words.

Hence, it is with great relief that I can applaud this book. It is short by modern standards. Perhaps the need to finish it before death overtook her forced a more direct approach. For whatever reason, we are left with a stronger novel, even though it could be considered YA in spirit. It is an adequate mystery with a relatively unobtrusive magic element, and it positively zips along, easily holding interest and driving through to the end. For once, I can give unreserved praise and, more importantly, if this should prove to be the last novel, it is a good swan song effort.

For my other reviews of Kage Baker, see: Sons of HeavenThe Women of Nell Gwynne’sEmpress of Mars, Not Less Than Gods, and Or Else My Lady Keeps the Key.

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.

The Women of Nell Gwynne’s by Kage Baker

There is something slightly creepy about reviewing the work of an author so recently deceased. While not wishing to write an obituary, I satisfy myself with the bland assertion that I will miss her continuing to write — there are, of course, more books in the pipeline due for publication over the next year or so. When on form, Kage Baker was immensely readable and inventive.

The Women of Nell Gwynne’s is a part of the ongoing building of the back-story to the Company oeuvre. Nell Gwynne’s is a companion to the Gentleman’s Speculative Society in which Edward Alton Bell-Fairfax played such a pivotal role. When the two organisations combine, this is a steampunkish exploration of Victorian espionage and great fun. Sadly, there is a slightly wooden quality to some of the writing. In part, this is a result of a failure to acknowledge the extent of the squalor of the real London and the appalling conditions under which most prostitution was conducted. The first section of this novella is a fast-paced introduction to our heroine, Lady Beatrice. It hurries through her early years, glossing over the Massacre of Elphinstone’s Army and her survival of the subsequent Battle of Jellalabad. Frankly, I think this was a missed opportunity to explore the traumatic effect of those events both on her as a fictional survivor and on the British nation. It would have given real substance to her subsequent character and, more importantly, given more credibility to her rejection upon returning “home”. Although her family’s selfish reaction in rejecting her is not unbelievable, meeting such a survivor would have forced individuals and the community to confront their shock and horror at Elphinstone’s catastrophic leadership failure. Pubic opinion had yet to establish sufficient distance for objective assessments. She would have been put “put of sight” so that the spectre of Elphinstone could be “out of mind”. As it is, everything is too sanitised and, ultimately, genteel. Although, I suppose her desired intention of writing a fantasy justifies this rose-tinted spectacles view of the world.

The introduction, once done, leads into a slightly more leisurely telling of her recruitment to the upmarket brothel known as Nell Gwynne’s and her first assignment for the GSS. Although I think using antigravity as the primary trope of the story is somewhat over-the-top, it fits into the general wackiness of the scientific achievements attributed to all interested parties. The gathering of the interested parties for the auction of the technology is fairly routine, but finds some of Baker’s sense of humour at play. The mayhem at the end is then well-handled and the whole represents an enjoyable read. While this is not one of her best stories at this length, it nevertheless represents good value from Subterranean Press for those of you who like to see more bricks added to the Company wall. If you are not a Company fan, you should probably give this a miss at this price and wait for it to be packaged into a collection.

For my other reviews of Kage Baker, see: Sons of HeavenThe Empress of MarsHouse of the Stag and Or Else My Lady Keeps the Key.

As an added note, The Women of Nell Gwynne’s won the Nebula Award 2010 for Best Novella. It was also shortlisted for both the World Fantasy Award and the Hugo Award 2010 for the Best Novella.

The Empress of Mars by Kage Baker

“The Empress of Mars” first appeared as a novella in Asimov’s in July, 2003 with the first hardback as the Night Shade limited edition published in September, 2003. In this early incarnation, it was not immediately obvious whether this was intended as a standalone or awaited incorporation into the Company series. We did not have long to wait as Mars was duly made relevant to the psychological destiny of Alec Checkerfield in The Life of the World to Come and subsequent novels. Frankly, I have never been terribly convinced that Alec, who had been operating as a smuggler and gunrunner, would be so devastated, but that’s a whole different can of worms we can leave for another review.

Being older and of increasingly fallible memory, I more or less forgot about the novella until, to my surprise, I discovered it had been expanded into a novel. There was a moment of internal debate. Should I buy it and revisit Kage Baker’s Mars? I harboured the unkind notion that this was a rip-off with author and publisher going for easy money from credulous buyers. It does not take that much effort from an author to add a few more words and suddenly the publisher has a “new” novel on its hands. In a moment of self-revelation, I was transported back to days of youthful arrogance when I thought my vocabulary included every word of significance. With shame, I admit buying a copy of Chrestomathy by Keith Laumer. After the first serious dip into it, I was painfully reminded of the lesson taught by Barnum & Bailey with their American Museum sign, “This way to the Egress.” People are always exploited through their ignorance. So, hoping I was not poking another pig, I ponied up the ante to play Subterranean Press’ new game. There were two questions to be resolved as I began reading the eerily familiar opening words. Has the author done anything interesting with the original idea? and Is its status still equivocal or has the author now formally converted it into a Company novel?

Well, the novel version of The Empress of Mars preserves the spirit of the original novella. This is not a fix-up with a new bit bolted on to make up the length. The resulting whole is a slightly strange book that requires the reader to accept a relatively benign planet even though only in the initial stages of terraforming. Conceptually, it echoes the Mars of Ray Bradbury as a metaphor for optimism in which there is always hope because only the small-minded and a crew of slightly perverse bureaucrats stand in the path of progress. The mechanics of space flight are also conveniently left unexplained as people and goods seem to be able to pass between planets in remarkably short periods of time. The strangeness comes from a fantasy element thrown into the sfnal environment with a heretic offering a curiously selective set of prophesies leading up to a miracle in which she formally ascends into sainthood. In its shorter form, you could overlook the cod science and the curious behaviour of the weather. But novelising the novella is attempting the mountain out of a molehill trick. The original plot is a distinctly shaky frame upon which to build and, no matter how endearing the eccentrics and basket cases who make up the group of heroic settlers, it is always going to be an uphill struggle to achieve any degree of credibility. There has to be a Mars Two for the future history to work out right. Thus, the force of circumstances, aided by the Company operatives, must continuously nudge events to avoid any paradox. Except, of course, for the aberrant components like Ottorino’s unexpected ability to take out a mortar with a single shot and cinema-inspired hand-to-hand fighting skills.

To answer my two earlier questions: Ms Baker has taken the shorter version as a design on a piece of fabric and then embroidered it to produce a richer picture of life on Mars. Having read the Company short stories and novels that explain something of the Earth’s repressive attitude towards eccentricity, I follow the logic of the colonisation strategy. This is a Botany Bay solution to a perceived social problem with corporations hoping it can be made profitable. But the resulting mix is a set of cardboard and stereotypical characters dropped into a very black-and-white political situation. Allowing for this being science fiction, the depiction of the relationship between the English and Scottish factions is unconvincing, and the suggested clan and implied class structures are unlikely. Unfortunately, Baker’s future history requires British characters and this exposes her lack of cultural understanding. But, for US readers, the character labelling exercise will pass unnoticed. For them, it will not really matter that SF is culturally unrealistic. All anyone looks for is entertainment. As to the second question, Baker has, for those who have the relevant background in Company affairs, made the link into the series more overt than it was before. I think this is an improvement even though many of the tie-in elements will probably pass unrecognised by the uninitiated.

This novel can be read as a stand-alone and is reasonably enjoyable in an undemanding way.

For my other reviews of Kage Baker, see: Sons of Heaven, The Women of Nell Gwynne’sHouse of the Stag, The Bird of the River, Not Less Than Gods, and Or Else My Lady Keeps the Key.

The House of the Stag by Kage Baker

The very first quote included by the blurb writer on the dust jacket is from the Cincinnati Enquirer which says of The Anvil of the World, “. . .there is even a European flavor to it.” What were they thinking? European sensibilities are sudden death to anyone wishing to sell into the US market. There are thousands of seriously good authors working in the fields of science fiction, fantasy, horror and mystery, but their work is almost never translated into English. Even when the unthinkable does happen, sales figures resulting from half-hearted marketing prove that translations only sell into limited niche markets. So to associate a European “flavor” (sic) with a US author’s work is to give a kiss of death (in the Mafia sense of the expression). Unless, of course, this is intended only as a pump to the Special Relationship supposed to exist between the USA and Britain. This would inflate the publishing theory that literature apparently sharing the same language sells into all the markets where those languages are spoken. As if!

So here comes a humble European to view the work of an American author. The House of the Stag by Kage Baker follows in the same universe as her previous incursion into the world of high fantasy, The Anvil of the World. I will get the basic grouse out of the way at the beginning. Even at 350 pages, this book is too long. I despair of the modern art of editing. It should not be too hard for someone with sensibilities to take a blue pen to the dead bits, much as a topiarist might prune back the wild growth and allow a bush to be seen as a clean, simple and elegant delight to the eye. Authors have their interests and obsessions. There are times when they become self-indulgent, writing for themselves rather than for the good of the narrative. Editors are supposed to be the sentinels of taste, gently shepherding their charges towards the greatness that beckons. As it is. . .

So, here we are in the world of foundlings and demons, where a baby so casually abandoned in the moment of birth, may survive trials and tribulations to rise as a powerful mage. Simply stated, this has to be one of the more hackneyed tropes in high fantasy. Like Conan and others from the sword and sorcery worlds, the growing boy is enslaved but, learning fighting arts for the arena from a master warrior, becomes a weapon against those who call themselves masters. Displaying unexpected abilities with magic, he will be later become a mage and escape into a world of freedom. Fortunately, he is not a barbarian.

The mark of a good author is someone who defies the odds and transcends the ordinary to produce something better. In this instance, Baker succeeds. Although the raw material of initial plot threads is unpromising and she is allowed to spend too much time going through the weaponisation of the hero by Silverpoint, the set-up for the empowered hero to emerge into the larger world outside the mountain creates the right sense of anticipation. This opportunity is almost wasted by an excessive period in a theatre, assimilating the basic rules of characterisation. This translates what the hero absorbed in the arena (somewhat along the lines of the World Wrestling Foundation’s insistence on over-the-top personalities) into what it takes to become a leading man on the stage. However, once we put the tiresome treading of the boards behind us, Baker finally catches fire and maintains a tight control over the plotting and writing to arrive at a most satisfying conclusion. She never actually explains how or why the tribe happen to be held in an impenetrable valley, nor the origins of the hero, the Star or the Saint, nor how singing makes magic or the more general magical system of the mages works. With sly authorial winks and nods, she contrives to convince us that such explanations are redundant. All we can say with any confidence at the end is that the right team wins the day and is left to fight another day (should there be sequels, there is a chance for Ranwry’s status to become more clear). The only cavil I have is that, as a mother at bay, the Saint proves surprisingly powerless. She demonstrates significant magical abilities on a number of occasions, so it’s sad that a female author makes mother and child wait for a male hero to rescue them.

When she is on form, Baker conflates two pleasing skills: an ability to see beyond the obvious and find fresh ways of seeing the world, while maintaining a wry sense of humour about the situations in which she places her characters. There are genuine signs that she is having fun when allowing the plot to go where it will. There are also some interesting thoughts on the politics of health care. It seems this author is in favour of socialised medicine rather than a capitalist monopoly over drugs. As a mere European who has escaped the death camps of the NHS, I hesitantly agree with this American author, hoping this is not a kiss of death. Overall, this is a pleasing addition to the fantasy canon and while not quite the best book in the genre for 2008, it’s clearly one of the top ten reads and genuinely worth reading.

For my other reviews of Kage Baker, see: Sons of HeavenThe Women of Nell Gwynne’sEmpress of Mars, The Bird of the River, Not Less Than Gods, and Or Else My Lady Keeps the Key.

This novel was shortlisted for the World Fantasy Award 2009 for Best Novel.

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.

For my other reviews of Kage Baker, see: Sons of HeavenThe Women of Nell Gwynne’sEmpress of Mars, The House of the Stag, The Bird of the River, and Not Less Than Gods.

The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate by Michael Chiang

Well, for once, I’m setting off to write a short review in honour of a short “book”. Subterranean Press have a wonderful habit of picking extraordinarily good stories and packaging them well. In this instance, I propose to say a few hopefully well-chosen words about The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate by Michael Chiang. This won the Nebula Award for Best Novelette (2007) and was nominated for the Hugo.

As I have commented in two other reviews on this site about time travel, it’s very difficult to get the logic right and avoid boredom as the inevitable asserts itself. Joe Haldeman gets the plot working as it should but fails in the writing. Kage Baker just writes the book and rather ignores the paradox problems. Here we have a model author who gets everything absolutely right. This is quite simply one of the best written, most elegant time travel stories I’ve read for years.

It starts off with a delightful cheat in that, instead of hard science, we have a mediaeval alchemist in the Middle East develop a gate that allows people to pass through a predetermined amount of time in either direction. The partial telling of the history of this gate is therefore left to one of the travellers who, being stranded, comes to the attention of the local Caliph. Yet this is no One Thousand and One Nights with djinns and the usual trappings of Arabian, Persian, Jewish and Indian folklore. This is a work of modern sensibilities where love, loss and redemption resonate implacably through time. It is the kind of story you can reread with perfect satisfaction, simply admiring the mechanics of plot and writing in such perfect harmony. A real joy!

For a review of a new novella from Chiang, see The Lifecycle of Software Objects.

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