Kage Baker, Gods ad Pawns (Tor, 2007)
I had just finished reading Rude Mechanicals, the forthcoming Company novel on Subterranean Press, when the Fedex overnight delivery courier delivered Gods and Pawns to the Green Man mailroom. One of our editorial assistants stuffed it and a note into a pneumatic tube, both arriving with a soft thump in the corner of my office. I read the note, in which she said that this obviously meant for me as I was the fan of the series. How right she was, as I've read every word of the series, and own first editions of every work that makes up this fantastic series. (I was lucky -- I got the early hardcover novels when they were relatively affordable. Now a first of In the Garden of Iden in fine condition will likely set you back a hundred dollars.) I was planning on reading something else from the slush pile of ARCs we get in to see if anything tickled my fancy, but this was just too good to pass up. So I grabbed a cup of hot chocolate made from Ellen Kushner's superb recipe, put the 'Do Not Disturb' sign on my office door, and sat down for a few hours' reading. It was, as I suspected it would be, a rather wonderful time!
As I said in my review of the first four novels in the series:
What if you discovered that time travel was practical, but only one way -- back into the past? You certainly don't want to be stuck in the past if you're planning on being very, very rich in the time that you come from. And mortals of the past are both frail and short-lived. Sigh. . . . Damn. But what if you could create immortal cyborgs by using the discards of their societies? (Being rich and clever is very, very good -- it also can be a terrible trap if you think too logically.) Now, the process only works on relatively young children, so you yourself will never be immortal. And though there are often horrible side effects, at least in theory you can create a cadre of loyal, extremely strong and intelligent workers who can be used to do your bidding for tens of thousands of years if need be. And the only rule governing your actions is that recorded history can't be altered. Not because it can't be changed, but because no one wants to find out what happens if you did.
There are, by my account, six novels, two lovely short novels and/or novellas, depending on how you define them, and now two collections. Collectively, they now comprise over three thousand pages of truly superb science fiction with a final novel, Sons of Heaven, (which I am hoping to read soon) to go, and possibly some other novels that will fill in the back stories of some of the characters, both immortal and mortal. If there was a HUGO award for Best Science Fiction Series of All Time, it'd be very hard to bet against The Company series as the body of writing which should win, as it is indeed among one of the very best series ever written.
(According to Kage, I was close: 'The Company count, though, is 7 novels, 2 collections, 3 chapbooks: Iden, Coyote, Hollywood, Graveyard, Life, Machine's Child -- Black Projects, Gods & Pawns, Angel, Empress, Rude Mechanicals. Empress of Mars takes place in the Company universe and one of the characters (Mr. DeWit) is an immortal. And Children of the Company is a novel, albeit a mosaic one. And! There's a stray novella, Mother Aegypt. The only Company piece in an otherwise non-Company collection. Come to think of it, 'Where the Golden Apples Grow' counts as well, because it's set in the Company universe, though it features no Company meddling.')
(Most of the other short Company fiction to date is collected in the aforementioned Black Projects, White Knights -- The Company Dossiers, a Golden Gryphon collection. Publishers Weekly summed that collection up nicely by saying: 'Baker shows greater range with these stories than she does in her novels (In the Garden of Iden, etc.), and has more fun with her characters, letting them play at being pirates, dig up mummies or interact with Shakespeare and Robert Louis Stevenson.' I wholeheartedly recommend you get that collection as well. See this page for our review of Black Projects, White Knights.)
Gods and Pawns is no exception to this. Some of the material was not new to me, as it's been already printed elsewhere, including The Angel in the Darkness, which may the best novella I've ever read, bar none, by anyone. And I know that Kage sent me 'The Hellfire Club' some years ago as a digital file so I could read it (it was rather nice to finally see it in print) but it will be new to you. (I often get confused as to if and when something has been or will be printed as Green Man often gets things for us to read a very long time before you see them.)
So what's superb here? Oh, everything. Starting off this collection is 'To the Land Beyond the Sunset', a previously unpublished novella wherein Mendoza and Lewis (who's still very much in love with Mendoza, who loves only her now dead mortal lover) go on a impromptu field trip in the New World of the seventeenth century to figure why certain areas have soil so rich, so fertile that it defies logical explanation. The Heinleinian 'by your bootstraps' explanation for the super-compost shows once again that the masters running Zeus Inc. are far less smart than they think they are.
Next in 'The Catch', Kage tackles the matter of the Company's very early efforts in the 1950s to create an immortal being. Though they would later perfect the immortality process and know that only the very young could successfully made into cyborgs, Zeus Inc. wasn't that smart, so their very first attempt went horribly wrong, creating a time-tripping monster obsessed on avenging himself against those who made them. How do you catch a smart homicidal monster? And what do you do with him when you do catch him since he can't be killed? A chilling story indeed.
(Kage, in an e-mail, adds some context to this story about one of the two immortals chasing this monster: 'He's Porfirio, the only immortal to have kept track of his mortal brother's descendants. First introduced in Mendoza in Hollywood. Joseph goes to talk to him in Austin, Texas, when he's trying to find out what happened to Mendoza. At that time he's living with and supporting the widow and children of Philip (who appears as a baby in Angel in the Darkness). And Maria, the little girl in the Catch who spots Bobby on TV as The Amazing Gnomon, will grow up into middle-aged Maria in Angel in the Darkness.')
We slide then to 'The Angel in The Darkness', perhaps my favorite novella ever, which Kage sums up her Web site thusly: 'A novella set in 1990s Los Angeles. In every generation, some luckless family member is stronger than the others. Who else will remember the family history, loan money, baby sit the children, wash the dead? Death and time wreck everything, and the caryatid inevitably bends under the weight of her burden. . . but once in a while, someone unexpected steps from the shadows to lend a shoulder.' Do read 'The Catch' first, as this novella will have more emotional impact if you do!
In 'Standing in the Light', The life of the painter Vermeer is told from the point of view of how miserable Vermeer's life would have been if the greedy bastards of Zeus Inc. had decided quanity mattered more than quality in terms of his artwork. Contrast this with the wild romp in San Francisco in 'A Night on the Barbary Coast', in which Joseph and Mendoza travel there in search of a mysterious strain of blue-green algae that Zeus Inc. will exploit centuries later. Gunfire, gambling, wild chases and even a grizzly bear will figure in this appropriately silly tale.
A thread that hopefully Kage will deal with in the final novel forms the crisis in 'Welcome to Olympus, Mr. Hearst', where the Company takes on William Randolph Hearst and loses in all possible ways that such an organization can lose. Like the still-to-be published Rude Mechanicals short novel, the year is 1933, it's Hollywood at its very best (and worst) and Joseph and Lewis spend a weekend at the estate of W. R. Hearst and other socially connected elites, as well as a pair of chihuahuas named, respectively, Tcho-Tcho and Conqueror Worm. (Don't ask. Really. Truly.) Not to mention the ghost of Rudolph Valentino. Will Joseph and Lewis complete their assigned tasks? Will all work out for Hearst in what he wants? Sort of.
Possibly saving the best for last, we have a novella, 'Hellfire at Twilight' in which, to quote her, 'Lewis makes the acquaintance of the infamous Sir Francis Dashwood, Baron LeDespencer, and learns that some devils are not nearly so black as they are painted, especially if they happen to be painted on Grecian urns. The Eleusinian Mysteries are revealed. . . well, not quite. But close.' All you need to know about this tale is that the Hellfire Club is now aged group of elites who attempted in their jaded youth once upon a time to recreate the glories of what Bacchus once practiced. Now decades on, they are no longer as, errr, spry as they once were.
As a appetizer for the final Company novel, The Sons of Heaven, Gods and Pawns serves most wonderfully. Several plot liners move forward, the fallibility of Zeus Inc. is made painfully aware, and Lewis, one of my favorite characters in this series, is given more depth as a being who means to do well even if Time Itself plots against him.