REVIEW: Gods and Pawns by Kage Baker
BRIEF SYNOPSIS: 7 stories (3 novellas, 2 novelettes and 2 short stories) set in Baker’s Company universe.
PROS: 2 top-notch stories; offers tantalizing glimpses into the bigger universe told across the novels.
CONS: One of the two new stories for this collection is not nearly as strong as its counterparts.
BOTTOM LINE: Serves as a good introduction into Baker’s Company universe.
First, a confession. I have not yet read any of Kage Baker’s Company novels. Why the heck, you might ask, would I be reading a book of stories set in that universe?
The answer is because I have already read some of Baker’s Company stories and found them, for the most part, to be entertaining. (“The Hotel at Harlan’s Landing” and “Mother Aegypt” as well as two included here, “A Night on the Barbary Coast” and “Welcome to Olympus, Mr. Hearst“.) Since I haven’t read the longer novels, I really have little idea whether this collection contains spoilers to the books. But what I can say is that Gods and Pawns is a good collection of bite-size morsels to whet your appetite for more.
What’s the story behind the universe? In the future of the Company – that would be Dr. Zeus, Incorporated – time travel technology exists and so does the secret of immortality. You have to become a cyborg to become immortal, but hey, who’s complaining? And while the past cannot be changed (so the Company motto goes), that does not mean one cannot make money from it. So the Company plucks people from the past, turns them into immortal cyborgs and has them pilfer the past for artifacts that are sold upstream to rich collectors.
The Company universe is mapped out in a fairly large number of books and stories. Besides the Gods and Pawns collection, there are eight other books in the series with the final Company novel, The Sons of Heaven, due in July 2007. It is unlikely that the stories will ever be published in a single volume; Kage Baker’s website lists twenty-nine shorter works, not including the two stories in Gods and Pawns, “To the Land Beyond the Sunset” and “Hellfire at Twilight”, which are new for this collection. I wish I could say that the new ones were better than ever, but they merely served as minor bookends to a collection that contains some stronger entries. The standout stories here are “The Catch” and “Welcome to Olympus, Mr. Hearst”.
As I understand it, there are several story arcs that cross the novels that involve a recurring cast of characters. Several of those characters do make appearances in this collection. It’s interesting to see the Company operatives in these historical mini-adventures because it offers some more insight into the inner workings of the mysterious (to me) Company. Although I confess that some of the larger-picture arcs were probably lost on me, I also admit that enough hints were dropped along the way to make me want to explore further. Baker’s writing makes that easier; her straightforward delivery is decorated with clever humor and realistic characterizations that add up to engaging reading.
Reviewlettes follow with online stories linked where appropriate.
STORIES IN THIS COLLECTION:
- “To the Land Beyond the Sunset” [2007 novella]
- Synopsis: A working vacation in Bolivia for Company operatives Lewis and Mendoza turns into an unexpected mystery when they encounter fertile land in the middle of a desert occupied by a self-appointed royal family with no subjects over which to rule.
- Review: The beginning of the story, which focused on the Will They/Won’t They of immortal cyborgs Lewis (a Literature Preservation Specialist) and Mendoza (a Botanist), was well written but paced a bit too slowly. The story picked up when it became evident that the royal family was hiding something. Lewis and Mendoza pose as servants to a distant god in order to study their serendipitous find. There was also some nice characterization for both Mendoza, the immortal cyborg who has a seriously disliking for mortals because of a past relationship, and Lewis, his unrequited love for Mendoza hindered by the memories of her former love.
- “The Catch” [2004 novelette]
- Synopsis: While on a stakeout in 2008, Company operative Porfirio recounts the tale of how young Bobby Ross was snatched from 1958 to become one of the first immortal operatives, a then-new procedure that yielded unexpected results.
- Review: Bobby’s story of innocence, tragedy and all-consuming power is both sad and creepy. Baker does an excellent job telling his story, alternating between flashbacks and Porfirio bringing his partner up to speed. I’m not sure if Bobby was telling the truth when he explained the real story behind the extinction of the dinosaurs and the Tunguska Event, but his threats were nonetheless effective. Time travel was also used to good effect. Well done!
- “The Angel in the Darkness” [2003 novella]
- Synopsis: (Maria Aguilara leads a tough life: her father is in an assisted living facility, her single-mom niece has a drinking problem, and, oh yeah, an immortal cyborg is threatening her.
- Review: Cleverly plotted and wittily executed, this story had three acts. The first was a family drama that set up a mystery of strangers who know too much. The second act shows Maria taking charge of the situation, or at least trying to, as the details fall into place about the mystery; a mystery that works for both Company fans and newbies. The third act is the high-action resolution that is both suspenseful and satisfying. The link back to Baker’s Company universe is in Maria’s “uncle” Porfirio, thought long-dead but, obvious to the know-it-all reader (especially in a collection of Company stories), very much alive. He is immortal, after all – and acting as the self-appointed guardian angel of the family line. Other Company figures make an appearance (I’m not saying who!) as they play out a scenario that offers some nice world building. However, the long-winded infodump of Porfirio’s origins would be of interest only to readers deeply familiar with the character. Sadly for me, I am not yet at that stage with these stories. Then again, this kind of storytelling and plotting is the kind that makes we want to visit the novels.
- “Standing in His Light“ [2001 short story]
- Synopsis: Company operative Van Drouten assists 17th century artist Jan Vermeer so that he may produce the works of art that are so valuable in her century.
- Review: Although the writing style was clear and inviting, there was not really a substantial hook in this story. It did, however, offer an in-the-field view of how the Company goes about securing the treasures from the past.
- “A Night on the Barbary Coast” [2003 short story] [I read this in September, 2004. What follows is what I said then.]
- Synopsis: Company time traveler Mendoza is enlisted by her father in 1850 San Francisco to track precious metal.
- Review: Good writing and good story, but lacked any oomph to propel it above any other good story. Time travel is only used as a setup plot device to locate the story in the past.
- “Welcome to Olympus, Mr. Hearst” [2003 novella] [I read this in November, 2004. What follows is what I said then.]
- Synopsis: Joe Denham and Lewis Kensington, a pair of immortal time-traveling employees of the Company, are assigned to store some artifacts on the estate of media mogul William Randolph Hearst.
- Review: Very good story with good characterizations and an entertaining mixture of humor, mystery and suspense. The subplot of the stolen script signed by Rudolph Valentino gave it a little more substance than most stories.
- “Hellfire at Twilight” [2007 novelette]
- Synopsis: Lewis, Document Preservation Specialist of the Company, is assigned to retrieve scrolls used by the infamous Hellfire Club.
- Review: This was too steeped in historical context to stoke my science fictional fire. Furthermore, the final scenes featuring offstage cries of an apparent mythological orgy, while somewhat effective as a humorous element, were reached only at the end of a long and wordy road.
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