REVIEW: Golden Reflections by Fred Saberhagen

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Golden Reflections is a collection of long stories based around the world of the novel The Mask of the Sun, by the late Fred Saberhagen. The short novel itself starts off the collection, followed by the novellas/novelettes.

MY REVIEW:

PROS: Original novel still holds up, interesting variations on theme in the stories. The Novelette/Novella form really shines in this book.

CONS: The stories do not cohesively hold together in a single narrative universe.

BOTTOM LINE: A classic work of time and timeline travel gets more than a fresh coat of paint being paired with excellent ancillary works.

The original novel is a favorite of mine, and I was curious as how the book would hold up, having not re-read it in many years. I was also extremely interested in seeing how other writers would tackle the world presented in the novel.

The trouble with her face was that it wasn’t born yet. Didn’t exist. Couldn’t. Not in the same world with Mike Gabrieli. About four hundred years before he was born, this kid had died . . . My God, they’d really left her there to die!

The timelessness of the scenery here on this ridgepole of the world had somewhat masked the truth. But now it was beginning to sink in. In Europe, Henry VIII, no joke at all, would be replacing Chancellor Thomas More with Thomas Cromwell about this time– perhaps this very day of northern summer. Leonardo da Vinci was dead only a few years, Copernicus still very much alive. In Rome, young Michelangelo was preparing his Last Judgment. Galileo and Shakespeare were not yet born.

The year of 1532. Now it was sinking in, and his hands began to shake with it, as if truth were the cold of the high Andes, penetrating to settle in his bones.

Mask of the Sun is the story of Mike Gabrieli. His brother Tom, diving for a living off of Key West, has found a mysterious mask of gold, a mask that men will kill to obtain. The Mask guides the wearer, showing scenarios and outcomes to give the Mask’s wearer what he or she desires. Or is the Mask’s own goals that the wearer is being shown?

Coming into possession of the mask following his brother’s disappearance and learning its capabilities, Mike discovers that the mask is but one piece of a large puzzle of a war across time and multiple timelines by cultures descended from the Incan Empire and the Tenocha, or the Aztecs. Mike discovers that the mask itself is a feared and coveted prize, and, mistaken for a mercenary in this time war, struggles to find his now missing brother, and survive in an alternate 16th Century Peru, with the Mask his guide. Throw in a time traveler who appears to be working for neither side, a ton of historical detail on the Pizarro conquest of the Inca, the fact that Pizarro has a mask himself, and mix well.

It was a favorite novel of mine when I first read it, and the re-read holds up extremely well. A couple of things do date the novel as a product of its time, 1979. The female characters are not quite as well developed as one might hope, the focus and characterization falling squarely on the male characters, and especially, Mike himself. It was a delight for me to reenter this world and aside from the gender characterization issue; the novel is still fresh and interesting to me, and I think, to many readers. While Saberhagen is much better known for his Berserker and Dracula novels, as a one shot short novel, I think Mask of the Sun is at the top of his oeuvre.

In introductory essays by Robert Vardeman and by Joan Saberhagen, wife of the late writer, the format of the anthology of stories that accompanies Mask of the Sun is explained. Given the difficulty of fitting novellas into short story collections (something that Jonathan Strahan has lamented on his Coode Street Podcast and elsewhere when it comes to his original fiction and Best of the Year anthologies), the pair decided that rather than a long line up of stories to compliment Mask of the Sun, they decided on a shorter list of writers, permitted to write to novella or novelette length.

As far as the novellas and novelettes are concerned, the quality is top notch. The writers make the format shine in this medium. My only quibble, and really my only disappointment for the entire collection as a whole, is that there is something of a fuzzy quality to the ground rules of the Mask of the Sun universe as regards to the Time War and the powers of the Mask. Rather than being stories that could fit together in the same Mask of the Sun world, the stories felt a little disjointed, as each writer’s Mask and Time War are different enough as to threaten incompatibility.

The lineup consists of:

“The Fate Line” by Walter Jon Williams

In the Fate line, we get a good sense of how a Mask can severely alter history, creating a dominant Egyptian Empire, one powerful enough to disturb the Inca. And so a team is sent into Ptolemaic Egypt to learn more.

“Wax, Clay, Gold” by Daniel Abraham

In Abraham’s story, we get a very Fritz Leiber The Big Time sort of story, with a group of time warriors between missions killing time telling stories. The bulk of the story is one of the time warriors telling the story of a failed mission to obtain the Mask on an inside job.

“The Conquistador’s Hat” by John Maddox Roberts

Roberts’ story takes place in a Hitler-victory timeline, one inadvertently helped into existence by an accident of history involving the Mask…

“Eyewear” by Harry Turtledove

Turtledove’s story uses the mask as an explanation for the most unlikely real life adventures of Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, who with four companions, made an improbable 1500 mile journey across what is now the U.S. in the early 16th century.

“Like the Rain” by Jane Lindskold

Like the Turtledove story, Like the Rain uses unlikely real-life events and inserts the Mask into them, this time the Pueblo Revolt against the Spanish. The real-life story has some very strange events recorded around Po’pay’s rebellion, which Lindskold uses to excellent purpose in tying in the Mask.

“Remember” by Dean Wesley Smith

Smith’s story takes us back to an alternate history, this time an alternate Alamo between the Republic of Texas and the Aztec Empire.

“Washington’s Rebellion” by David Weber

The final story in the collection, by Mr. Weber, has a soldier from a world where the American Revolution failed sent back to another timeline to prevent the Americans from winning the Revolutionary War again. What he doesn’t realize, but the reader does very quickly, is which side has recruited him, and why.

It’s a solid lineup of stories by a solid lineup of writers. I don’t think any of the stories quite approach the beauty and power of the novel, but they all make more than adequate compliments to it. If you are at all interested in Saberhagen’s work, or want a rollicking trip through alternate histories and timelines, the Golden Reflections collection is definitely recommended to you.