It is a little after 1:15 p.m., January 31, 2010. Kage Baker passed away just 12 hours ago and I found out about it less than a half hour ago. Even though the Green Man Review community knew it was coming, and Kathleen, her caregiver, kept us up to date on how Kage was doing, I am still numb from the news. Although I never met her in person, Kage Baker became a part of my life. I remember quite clearly reading her first published story “Noble Mold” in the March 1997 issue of Asimov’s. I was on lunch break, sitting on a park bench in Scottsdale, Arizona. The story was so different than the rest of that issue; I could tell there was something new and exciting starting here. I made a note to myself to keep track of this new author with the interesting name.
Then, shortly after, Kage’s first novel, In the Garden of Iden came out and I picked up a copy. I read it aloud to my wife (a tradition we’ve had since we were first married), and we were both hooked. Every single short story and novel that Kage published after that, we would grab up and read, setting aside anything else we were reading. The characters of Joseph, Mendoza, and Lewis became like family members to us as we felt their anguish and joys. We would devour the latest and then wait impatiently for the next installment that could never come quickly enough.
Somewhere along the way, I wrote off to Kage, thanking her for such enjoyable stories. She graciously responded. We emailed back and forth for a short span. I noticed she had the wrong date for one of her stories listed on her website. She thanked me, and also sent me a signed dust jacket for her forthcoming book The Graveyard Game. (Unfortunately, that dust jacket got ruined through mold or mildew or dampness a few years later, but I still have the memory of the graciousness Kage showed me.)
And so, here I am, fighting back the lump in my chest and the tears in my eyes, to write a review of what will most likely be the last Kage Baker book, Not Less Than Gods.
[Editors note — Kathleen says that Kage’s last novel will actually be The Bird of the River, the third in her fantasy series.]
Over the course of a decade, from the publication of “Noble Mold” in 1997 to Sons of Heaven in 2007, Kage took us on a wonderful tour of the universe of her Company, the group of cyborgs who looted the past for their employer in the future, Dr Zeus. While the saga encompassed thousands of pages, it contained dozens (hundreds even?) of characters, with the main characters numbering in the dozens. Kage brought each one to life. Indeed, her characterization was one of the highlights of the series. Her readers knew Mendoza, and Lewis, and Joseph, and even the villains Labienus and Nennius. But one character that always struck me as thinly developed was Edward Alton Bell-Fairfax. I just couldn’t relate to him — there wasn’t enough of him there, and so I had to take on faith what Kage told me I should feel about him. To me, it was a weak point in the series.
And so, it is fitting that Kage’s (almost) final novel would be the one that fills in that hole. Not Less Than Gods takes Edward’s backstory and fleshes him out as a character. The novel opens with Edward’s conception under mysterious circumstances. We are shown his early life, as he is adopted by Mr. Septimus Bell (at the behest of the Company cabal that Nennius heads up), as he begins to exhibit superhuman talents that set him apart from his peers (just as Nicholas Harpole and Alec Checkerfield, the other two Adonai experiments had), and then as he is inducted into the Gentlemen’s Speculative Society, that organization that would move on to become Dr Zeus, Incorporated.
Most of the novel is the story of Edward’s training as a superspy and his first mission. While there is an overarching plot, the story mostly is episodes from that extended mission, more an exploration of Edward’s character than a spy novel. As Edward is faced with one dilemma after another, we see him struggle with some of his superhuman abilities over whether he should use them, and what it means to his soul to be able to do what he can. One such example comes early on when we learn that Edward has a talent for persuading people to do what he wants, even if that person detests what is being proposed. It comes first, humorously, through Edward having a penchant for seducing any female in sight. But then his boss, Ludbridge (whom we’ve met in The Women of Nell Gwynne’s) catches on and a meaningful discussion about the talent ensues. By the end, we see a bit more of Edward’s humanity, but also how he came to be the driven person we knew in the later Company novels.
I’ve seen early references to this book as being in the “steampunk” tradition (including in the promotional text provided with the advanced readers’ copy), but I’m not so sure about that. The physical trappings of steampunk are here — fantastic 19th-century inventions that operate on forgotten technologies — but most of those inventions are really based on technologies that the Company operatives have given the Gentlemen’s Speculative Society ahead of when they are discovered by mankind in general. There are plenty of scenes throughout the novel where the reader suddenly discovers that what is being described is really (for example) night-vision goggles, or a “bug” for spying, or even the faxing of information across telegraph lines. Lots of fun, but not really what the novel is about.
Ultimately, this is not going to be considered one of Kage’s strongest works. For someone who is a Company junkie, it is a nice installment, but the newcomer would not understand the novel’s position in the entire series. A lot of “inside” knowledge is required to more fully appreciate the novel. If you happen to be one of those poor souls who has not been enthralled by the Company, I recommend you read some of the series first before tackling this novel, but if you’re an old-timer, then dive right in; there’s not much more of a fitting way to approach the end of Kage’s written works than with this novel, especially when you first open it to discover the following epigraph, which seems most appropriate to end this, my last review of one of the great SF authors. We miss you already, Kage.
Yet they who use the Word assigned,
To hearten and make whole,
Not less than Gods have served mankind,
Though vultures rend their soul.
– Rudyard Kipling, “Recantation”
(Subterranean Press and Tor, 2010)