Sunday, September 23, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #266: Nell Gwynne's On Land and At Sea by Kage Baker and Kathleen Bartholomew

Kage Baker had a very busy and varied career for about fifteen years -- not nearly long enough, but it's what we got. She wrote one sequence of eight SF novels about the time-traveling cyborgs of The Company, and a whole lot of other SF of various lengths that was explicitly or implicitly part of that series, or, at the further extreme, at least set in the same world.

One of the odder pendants of the Company series were the novellas about Nell Gwynne's. You see, the Company was a near-future enterprise that created immortal cyborgs, starting in the distant past, to take valuable things that would otherwise be destroyed and preserve them to be sold later. And a collection of related organizations eventually formed around those cyborgs, as they moved forward through historical time, some of which I think eventually turned into or merged with the Company, in a very Ourborous-like way. One of the precursors to the Company proper was the British Victorian-era Gentlemen's Speculative Society, the usual steampunky organization of spies and operatives.

That Society had its own private brothel, called Nell Gwynne's, deep underneath an already-exclusive restaurant in Whitehall. The employees of Nell Gwynne's are the heroines of three Baker novellas published as books: The Women of Nell  Gwynne's, Nell Gwynne's Scarlet Spy, and the book I'm about to tell you about.

That third novella is Nell Gwynne's On Land and At Sea, and it was left unfinished at Baker's death in 2010. Her sister Kathleen Bartholomew completed it -- I have no idea how much work Bartholomew did, and can't compare this to the previous books, so I'll leave that point there -- and it was published in 2012. I got a copy of it somehow, probably because I was supposed to review it somewhere, but I only managed to read it this year.

And it's, somewhat appropriately, one of the more languid of Baker's works. Some of her novels, particularly Sky Coyote, meander almost aimlessly through events until they're done. She's usually zippier in her shorter works -- some of her strongest, most exciting writing is in her novellas -- and that comes through in some of the novels as well, like The Sons of Heaven. But On Land is not in any hurry to get anywhere.

That's entirely appropriate, since it's the story of a summer vacation.

The young ladies of Nell Gwynne's have the month of July 1848 off, and they head down to the sea-shore of Torquay (interchangeably also called Torbay throughout, for no obvious reason) for several weeks of rest and relaxation on the sands. The ladies themselves are vaguely fungible -- one is fond of digging for fossils, another poses as a boy, three more are sisters -- and don't have terribly distinct personalities. Their madam, Mrs. Corvey, is somewhat more particular, though part of that is because she has fancy telescoping lenses in place of her eyes (hidden behind dark glasses all of the time, as she poses as a blind widow).

The subtitle of On Land is "Who We Did on Our Summer Holidays," but I regret to note that the ladies' erotic expertise is not required or described during this adventure. One of them does need to use her charms to learn more about a strange American, but she's posing as an innocent lady of good family and so mostly just lies there.

No, instead the ladies of Nell Gwynne's have to save England from the awfully mad-science plots of that strange American, who it turns out has a steam-powered submersible and a towering urge to use it to destroy a French warship. Doing so would lead to war, obviously -- well, obviously to all of the character in the book -- and so he must be stopped.

He is, eventually, after 174 pages of not all that much action (erotic or violent), and the ladies can then settle back down to enjoy the rest of their holidays in peace. Along the way, Baker and Bartholomew nudge the reader in the ribs several times about how 1848 this year 1848 is, with overly-obvious references to Brunel, various revolutions going on, and more than one case of "you might not believe this was already A Thing in 1848, but my research shows it jolly well was."

No book finished after a writer's death by other hands is going to be one of her best. On Land is minor Baker, and would have been minor Baker even is she'd lived to complete it. It's there to be enjoyed by fans of the Company series who want just a little more of that world, even if it's a very distant, odd part of that world. And it entirely succeeds on that level, even if it doesn't always read quite like Baker, but like someone doing a quite good Kage Baker impression.

No comments:

Post a Comment