Wednesday, January 25, 2017

In the Company of Thieves by Kage Baker

Kage Baker died seven years ago, which seems far too long to be true. But then she should have had at least twenty more good years, he said selfishly, thinking of all of the novels he won't get to read. As the tiniest bit of rebellion against a universe that could allow such a horrible thing to happen, I've been rationing her last few books -- if she still has stories that I haven't read yet, in one way she still is alive and can surprise me.

(So her two fantasy novels -- The Anvil of the World and The House of the Stag -- still sit on by to-be-read shelves with so much else, next to The Best of Kage Baker, which I've probably read the vast majority of anyway. But, if I wait long enough, the Best of book will feel new, and that will have to be good enough.)

But I do weaken, now and then. And so I read her 2013 collection In the Company of Thieves -- collecting six stories from her Company series, three of them novellas and one of them finished by her sister Kathleen Bartholomew and appearing here for the first time -- in the cold dark beginning of the year, maybe because Baker herself left us in the cold dark beginning of 2010. It's as good a reason as any.

The stories here are billed as "previously uncollected," which is not entirely true -- "The Carpet Beds of Sutro Park," the first and least of the stories, was in The Best of Kage Baker, which has to be considered a collection. And the darkly funny novella Mother Aegypt was the title story of a collection of miscellaneous (i.e. -- not all Company-related) stories from Night Shade back in 2004; it's the only one of these stories that I'd read before.

But the other two novellas -- The Women of Nell Gwynne's and Rude Mechanicals -- appeared as expensive books and are difficult to find now in print. And "The Unfortunate Gytt" only appeared in the Chris Roberson-edited anthology Adventure over a decade ago. And, finally, "Hollywood Ikons," the story completed by Bartholomew, didn't appear anywhere at all before this book.

As I implied up above, I'm a fan of both Baker in general and the Company books in particular; I read her first novel In the Garden of Iden in manuscript, longer ago than I want to remember, and put together the eight Company novels into four omnibuses when I worked at the SF Book Club. (See my reviews of the last few Baker books Not Less than Gods, The Bird of the River, The Empress of Mars, and The Hotel Under the Sand for more of my burbling about how great a writer she was.) I wouldn't necessarily suggest starting here, though -- these are sidebar stories in an existing universe, so knowing the ground rules going in is a good thing. Instead, if you haven't read Baker, I'd suggest the first Company novel, In the Garden of Iden, first, or perhaps the Company collection Gods and Pawns, or one of her standalone fantasy novels if you like fantasy better than SF.

But do read Kage Baker: her career wasn't as long as it should have been, but she was very prolific for about a decade and wrote a whole bunch of really good novellas in particular -- the hallmark, I think, of a quintessentially great genre writer. And if you are a Baker fan who didn't know this book existed, or had forgotten about it -- well, you've just been reminded.

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