It’s hard to believe that it’s already almost been three years since Kage Baker’s untimely death. She was an immensely talented storyteller and one of my favorite authors of the last few decades. In the short time between her first published story (1997’s “Noble Mold”) and her death in 2010, Kage produced a truly impressive amount of fiction: over a dozen novels across several genres (including the Company series, still my favorite time travel epic in the history of SF) and an amazing number of short stories, novelettes and novellas.
Most of Kage’s wonderful and wonderfully prolific output has by now been published in one form or another, but it turns out that some of her works-in-progress were left unfinished. Kage’s sister Kathleen Bartholomew has completed one of these, and thanks to Subterranean Press it’s now available: Nell Gwynne’s On Land and At Sea.
To be perfectly honest, I tend to get a bit worried about the idea of anyone finishing an author’s uncompleted works posthumously. In my experience, it’s already hard enough to create a successful collaboration when both participants are living. If one of them consists of just memories and written notes, the whole concept can become unbalanced and, to be honest, somewhat ghoulish, like watching one of those music videos in which a living relative sings a duet with someone who’s passed away. It’s just uncomfortable.
Nell Gwynne’s On Land and At Sea, however, is very much the exception to that rule, mainly because Kathleen Bartholomew was an integral part of not only Kage’s life but also her creative process. I highly recommend reading her gorgeous blog Kathleen, Kage and the Company to get an idea of the unique bond between Kage and Kathleen. Start with the earliest posts in August 2010 and go on from there. The blog is both a wonderful tribute to Kage and a chronicle of Kathleen’s efforts to keep her sister’s legacy alive:
“Now I am trying to write, and trying to channel her while I do: to conjure her voice out of her notes and my memory. Sometimes it comes very easily: I’ve been transcribing her left-handed scrawl since our girlhood, and every one of her stories has been pounded out on the anvil of my brain. I just need to develop a long enough mental reach to do it myself.”
After reading this and other entries on her blog, I don’t think there’s anyone else who could achieve the same results with Kage’s notes as Kathleen Bartholomew, thanks to the combination of a very personal, emotional commitment, an intimate familiarity with the material, and (thank goodness) a genuine talent for writing. As fans of the author, we’re lucky to have Kathleen, and Nell Gwynne’s On Land and At Sea is just the first example of this.
Kage Baker fans will already be familiar with the setting and characters of Nell Gwynne’s On Land and At Sea. Just like her earlier novella The Women of Nell Gwynne (which won Kage a posthumous Nebula) and the novelette “The Bohemian Astrobleme”, the story is set in the middle of the 19th century and focuses on the ladies of Nell Gwynne’s, a high-end brothel catering to prominent and powerful clients who have come to expect “characterization, theatrical detail and a certain specificity of satiation” during their visits. If those clients should happen to divulge certain valuable secrets in the heat of their passion, well, the members of the Gentlemen’s Speculative Society (who underwrite Nell Gwynne’s and occasionally provide its employees with technological gadgets) can often make good use of those in their various shadowy pursuits.
At the start of Nell Gwynne’s On Land and At Sea, the ladies are just about to leave London for their annual vacation to Torquay, the “English Riviera” (which would later be home to both Agatha Christie and Fawlty Towers—make of that what you will), where they hope to enjoy sun, leisure, and no work at all. Little do they know that a half-crazy gentleman with dreams of becoming the next Sir Francis Drake is on the verge of using some of the amazing naval technology he’s created to help restore the British Empire to its former glories. The ladies dutifully report this to the Gentlemen’s Speculative Society, but unfortunately all of its field operatives are abroad managing the various revolutions that are brewing in continental Europe… and so it falls on Mrs. Corvey and her intrepid girls to keep the situation under control.
If this novella had come out during Kage’s lifetime, I would have just called it a solid addition to her larger Company narrative, good but not great, an entertaining period adventure featuring the welcome return of some of her most interesting characters. The sly narrative tone that’s always been my favorite feature of Kage Baker’s writing is frequently on display, but sometimes it does become painfully clear that only Kage could really write like Kage. Nell Gwynne’s On Land and At Sea lacks the magic sparkle of her best works, but given the situation, it really is all I could have hoped for. It just feels good to read something new by Kage Baker, and so I’m inclined to forgive or ignore some of the book’s weaker spots and just enjoy it as the unexpected treat that it is.
After all, Kathleen Bartholomew has done more than just a creditable job: she’s proven herself uniquely able to continue her sister’s legacy. There’s simply no one else who could have produced Nell Gwynne’s On Land and At Sea. I think most fans of the author will be grateful for this late addition to Kage’s story, and, like me, hope we’ll get to read more works like this one in the future.
This review was originally published at Tor.com on January 3rd, 2012.