REVIEW: Not Less Than Gods and The Women of Nell Gwynne’s by Kage Baker
[SF Signal welcomes guest reviewer Chris Roberson!]
REVIEW SUMMARY:Steampunk + secret history + spy thriller = spectacular read
BRIEF SYNOPSIS: In Victorian England, Edward Alton Bell-Fairfax is the most promising young agent of the Gentlemen’s Speculative Society-a secretive organization of scientists and thinkers whose previous members have included Archimedes, da Vinci, and John Dee. Armed with futuristic technology-radios! cameras! balloons!-Bell-Fairfax and his fellow agents make their way across the Ottoman Empire and points east on the mysterious business of the Society, while keeping a wary eye out for rivals and fellow travelers alike.
PROS: The spycraft is dead-on, the settings and era are completely immersive and convincing, the jokes are funny and the action is taut.
CONS: The Society is definitely a boys’ club, and there is something of the Boy’s Own Adventure to the novel, with very few girls onboard-a fact entirely mitigated by the companion novella, The Women of Nell Gwynne’s, about which more below.
BOTTOM LINE: Fans of the Company novels will delight in learning more about Bell-Fairfax and his mysterious spymasters, and readers unfamiliar with Baker’s work will find this an excellent place to begin.
I’ve raved long and loudly about my love for the Company novels of Kage Baker. Which is not to say that I don’t have a deep respect and admiration for her fantasy novels like Anvil of the World and House of the Stag, quite the contrary, but the Company novels play directly to my love of secret history, time travel, and metafiction-so much so that they might as well have been written expressly for me.
If you’re unfamiliar with the Company, the basic idea is simple. In the future, the Dr. Zeus corporation makes two groundbreaking technological discoveries–the ability to time travel, and the process for making humans immortal. The problems are that it is only possible to travel into the past and back, not into the future, and the immortality process is long, painful, and only works on certain individuals when they are very young. Recorded history cannot be changed, but there are gray areas, “event shadows” in which there’s a bit of wiggle room.
The Company’s solution to these limitations, naturally, is to travel back into the past, locate children who fit the profile for the immortality process and who won’t be missed (orphans, children who would have otherwise died in fires, floods, and wars, etc.), and make them immortal with cybernetic implants. Then these immortal cyborgs will work as agents for the Company throughout history, saving things that would otherwise have been lost, and squirreling them away in hidden places for the Company to “discover” up in the future. Lost Shakespeare folios, forgotten masterpieces, extinct species, and historical rarities.
In the course of the Company novels, there are references to a shadowy organization that existed in the past, and which seems to have ties to the future Company. One name by which this group is known is the Gentlemen’s Speculative Society. It’s eventually revealed that the GSS is the precursor to the Company, its original formation paradoxically encouraged by agents of the Company in the distant past.
In Mendoza in Hollywood we’re introduced to Edward Alton Bell-Fairfax, a dashing and mysterious figure who is ultimately revealed to be a secret agent for the Gentlemen’s Speculative Society. Bell-Fairfax and his end (and his life beyond his death) are central to the later Company novels, but we don’t hear much more of the Victorian-era Gentlemen’s Speculative Society. And we want to hear more about them, or at least readers like me did.
Baker obliged us by penning a few short stories about Bell-Fairfax and his adventures for the GSS, including “The Unfortunate Gytt”, in Adventure! Vol. 1 (Monkeybrain Books, 2005) and “Speed, Speed the Cable”, in Extraordinary Engines (Solaris, 2008). These are stories of lost races, steampunk cyborgs, anachronistic technology, and spycraft at the dawn of the modern era.
Entertaining as they were, these short stories were just tantalizing tastes of Bell-Fairfax and the world of the Gentlemen’s Speculative Society, methadone for the Company addict.
In Not Less Than Gods the author delivers the pure fix.
The novel opens with the somewhat unusual circumstances leading to Bell-Fairfax’s conception and birth, then follows him through his adolescence and early military career. Then, when cashiered out of the navy after refusing to follow orders which offended his conscience, he is visited by the mysterious benefactor who has shadowed him his entire life, who invites him to join a highly exclusive gentlemen’s club, Redking’s. But he quickly learns that Redking’s serves only as a cover for a shadowy organization which dates back to antiquity, devoted to the betterment of mankind and society through the development of science and technology-the Gentlemen’s Speculative Society.
But Bell-Fairfax has not been inducted into the Society to wash retorts and work in a lab-the aims of the GSS often call for drastic measures, and there is always a need for agents willing to soil their hands-and their consciences-with dirty work. Bell-Fairfax begins training in the arts of espionage, subterfuge, and violence, and soon he is sent on his first mission-but not before he and his fellow agents are outfitted with some cutting-edge high-technology. Cutting-edge for the mid-19th Century, that is, including a radio, a camera, and so on. Before their adventures are through, they experience such wonders as a horseless-carriage with an internal combustion engine, a glider, and more.
To say too much more would be to devolve into a complete recitation of the plot-and honestly, the temptation is strong-but I resist. The long and short of it is that this book is for two classes of readers: those who have read the Company novels, and those who haven’t yet read the Company novels. If you’re in the former group, Not Less Than Gods is the book you’ve been waiting for. If you’re in the latter, then I have only this to say: Steampunk Spies. And who can resist that?
A limited edition of the novel, complete with illustrations by J.K. Potter, will be released by Subterranean Press in December 2009, and a trade edition is forthcoming from Tor in 2010.
REVIEW SUMMARY: Steampunk superspy prostitutes.
BRIEF SYNOPSIS: The “sister” organization to the Gentlemen’s Speculative Society are the ladies of Nell Gwynne’s, an exclusive high-end brothel where all of the working girls are also superspies.
PROS: The distaff answer to Not Less Than Gods, with spycraft, a murder mystery, and a lost race underground.
CONS: Nary a one, except that I’d have been happy to read the novel-length adventures of Lady Beatrice and company (and happily, a follow-up novella is in the works).
BOTTOM LINE: A brilliant companion-piece to Not Less Than Gods than stands up perfectly on its own.
It is what it says on the tin. This is a novella about the women of Nell Gwynne’s, the upscale brothel that serves as a special intelligence service for the Gentlemen Speculative Society. We are introduced to this clandestine world through the eyes of Lady Beatrice, a woman born with a drive and ambition that could not easily find expression in the Victorian world. Through misadventure-and no fault of her own-she becomes a “fallen woman,” with no prospects in society and no way to earn an honest living, and turns to prostitution. She doesn’t long walk the streets, though, and is soon recruited by the blind madam who runs Nell Gwynne’s-not so blind as she appears, though, as Mrs. Corvey has been secretly outfitted with bionic eyes by the artificers of the Gentlemen’s Speculative Society. But this is simply the first of many instances in which things are not as they seem within the walls of Nell Gwynne’s.
(There really was a Nell Gwynn, by the way, a seventeenth-century actress who was a mistress to King Charles II. She would have been right at home with Lady Beatrice and friends, I think.)
The ladies of Nell Gwynne’s aren’t pretending to be prostitutes. They are prostitutes, and rather high dollar ones at that. But there are places a prostitute can go where the agents of the Gentlemen’s Speculative Society can’t, and there are many secrets and confidences which the “clients” of Nell Gwynne’s are willing to whisper to the ladies who share their beds, never imagining the cost.
Much in the same way that we follow Edward Alton Bell-Fairfax’s childhood and subsequent induction into the GSS in Not Less Than Gods, here we follow Lady Beatrice’s childhood and induction into Nell Gwynne’s. (And it’s in those early days that the two stories first intersect, as Lady Beatrice and her fellow ladies appear in the early chapters of Not Less Than Gods.)
Lady Beatrice and a few of her fellow ladies of the night are sent on a mission, to investigate a strange new invention being offered to various rival governments by a reclusive inventor, and to locate the missing agent of the GSS who was sent ahead of them. Inveigling their way into the proceedings as the evening’s entertainment, the ladies rare quickly embroiled in a murder mystery and the riddle of the subterranean caverns and passages which burrow beneath the inventor’s crumbling mansion. The solution to these mysteries involves yet another faction from the Company novels, but I won’t reveal just which so as not to spoil the surprise.
The initial printing of The Women of Nell Gwynne’s from Subterranean Press has sold out, sad to say, but Baker has mentioned a follow-up novella featuring the ladies in recent interviews, so hopefully we won’t have too long to wait. Perhaps Subterranean will release a second printing of this first novella, or perhaps another edition, but if not you’d be well served to seek out a copy on the second-hand market. It will be well worth the trouble.
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