Your reaction to the announcement of Not Less Than Gods by consistently excellent SF and fantasy author Kage Baker will probably depend to a large extent on how familiar you are with her The Company series. If you haven’t read any of the Company novels or collections, the story of the Gentlemen’s Speculative Society (GSS) and one of its operatives, Edward Alton Fairfax-Bell, sounds like an interesting and entertaining steampunk novel. However, if you’re familiar with the Company series, your reaction to a novel about “Edward’s creation and recruitment by the GSS, his training, and his first mission” will probably be more of the “I want it and I want it NOW!” variety, with the number of exclamation points determined by how enthusiastic you are about the main series. (I limited myself to one, to avoid the impression that this review was written by a teenage girl. Mentally, please feel free to add a few more.)
In a nutshell, the COMPANY series deals with the operatives of Dr. Zeus Inc., a 24th century company that has discovered the secret of time travel and naturally decides to use it for corporate profit, sending quasi-immortal cyborgs back in time to collect lost art, extinct plants and so on.
One of the things I like best about the COMPANY series is the way the information is slowly revealed throughout the series. For example, the excellent first novel in the series, In the Garden of Iden, at first reads like a more or less self-contained story about Company botanist Mendoza, but it takes on a completely different meaning when you read the later books in the series, because there’s a huge story arc building up throughout the series, with layers upon layers added to the plot and the characters as the revelations build up.
The two stand-alone COMPANY novels Kage Baker released after the completion of the main series, The Empress of Mars and Not Less than Gods, have a completely different impact depending on how familiar you are with the series, because fans already know the entire story and are now being filled in on specific aspects of it — in the case of Not Less Than Gods, the early life of Edward Alton Fairfax-Bell, who makes his first COMPANY series appearance in Mendoza in Hollywood. In that sense, it’s a bit similar to The Life of the World to Come, but about Edward rather than Alex Checkerfield. Even though it feels like a prequel, using that term doesn’t make much sense in a series that deals with the nature of time travel.
Even if you haven’t read any of the COMPANY novels, Not Less Than Gods is still a very entertaining read. Kage Baker includes enough hints about the nature of the Company to make sure that new readers will have a broad idea of what’s going on — or at least as much as the main characters do. Even without this, the novel is a rollicking adventure story set in the Victorian era, about a small group of GSS agents traveling across Europe and the Middle East, causing havoc and (in the process) affecting history in several ways. They’re armed with an array of — for that period — advanced gadgets and weaponry, a distinct appreciation for alcoholic beverages, and a good dose of jolly-old-boy British witticisms. Young Edward is a fascinating character, different from his peers in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, idealistic, tortured, and brave. As always, Kage Baker‘s prose is delightfully sly, always sounding as if she is sharing a subtle joke with her readers, gradually drawing you in as she unfolds the plot.
As a long-time fan of Kage Baker, I was extremely pleased with Not Less Than Gods. If you’re in the market for an excellent SF series, I’d probably still recommend starting with In the Garden of Iden first, but Not Less Than Gods is a solid addition to the COMPANY series and works surprisingly well as a standalone novel.
Fans of THE COMPANY novels of Kage Baker — the series that began with In the Garden of Iden and features the redoubtable Mendoza, along with other immortals and secret societies — need to know no more than that this novel comprises the back story of Edward Alton Fairfax-Bell.
Edward Alton Fairfax-Bell is a foundling, the bastard son of noble parents who had a tryst in 1924. He was adopted as an infant by a family suffering from the loss of their own infant son, but rejected by his adoptive mother, and therefore essentially raised by servants. At the age of 11, he is taken under the care of Dr. Nennys, the headmaster of a boarding school to which he is quickly ushered. He does well, grows to a very tall manhood (just shy of seven feet, in fact), and joins the Navy. Unfortunately, the Navy doesn’t quite meet his ideals, but is full of bounders and scoundrels — one of whom Edward nearly kills in 1847 when the man, his commanding officer, flogs a sailor nearly to death. Edward is locked up, and soon to be hanged, when Dr. Nennys comes to rescue him and set him up in his true profession.
Edward is to join a secret society that is working for the betterment of the world behind the scenes, manipulating leaders, planning wars, and using science far in advance of its time to accomplish these ends. Dr. Nennys describes the society as the most glorious gathering of men: “And so they came together, these good and wise men, and formed a society to work in secret for the improvement of the world. Once Science, they felt, could alleviate human suffering by developing advances in medicine, in agriculture, in sanitation. Only a hierarchy of great intellects should guide and rule mankind.”
Edward is eager for the work. He quickly proves to have abilities greater than the normal run of men; he can smell, hear and see better than they can, and his bones seem to be abnormally dense and therefore resistant to injury. He also has an unusual ability to persuade. It makes him a perfect spy, but he doesn’t much like his differences, feeling that they set him apart. Still, he gives himself wholeheartedly to the work, and, in 1850, is set his first real task.
History scholars will recognize the date: 1850 is just one year before Louis-Napoleon will attempt to stage a coup d’etat and assume dictatorship of France. It is the task of Edward and his team to prepare England for their joinder with France in a war against Russia by gathering information about military sites and armaments.
Baker takes Edward through a series of remarkable adventures in the remainder of the book, and especially shows us Edward’s coming into himself as a member of the secret society he serves. He learns little or nothing about the Company, but he does start to wonder about Dr. Nennys, who doesn’t seem to have aged a single day since he first retrieved Edward from his adoptive parents’ home several decades ago; indeed, rumor has it that Dr. Nennys has been a member of his gentlemen’s club for over 100 years. Instead, we see Edward growing into the person who meets Mendoza in Mendoza in Hollywood. I’ve always felt he was the most interesting of the three incarnations of the man Mendoza loves, so reading his story was a genuine pleasure.
The book is also full of wonderful, other-worldly or ahead-of-its-time technology. It’s difficult to call this steampunk, exactly, as one of the key pieces of technology is remarkable specifically because it doesn’t use steam, but (apparently) electricity. But those who enjoy that sort of book will likely take great pleasure in reading about transmitters years before miniaturization and transistors took hold in the real world.
I strongly recommend that anyone not familiar with THE COMPANY not start reading Kage Baker’s most expansive, multi-volume work with this novel. Much happens that those unfamiliar with Baker’s previous novels and stories will simply not understand. While that might not ultimately make this book a less interesting read, especially for steampunk fans, it will mean that the experience isn’t complete. I do recommend the series overall, but would recommend that the reader start at the beginning, with In the Garden of Iden, and read the books in order from that point forward. (You actually might want to skip Mendoza in Hollywood, which is the weakest of all of Baker’s novels.)
Baker clearly was attempting to tie up loose ends in the Company saga, and she certainly managed to do that with Not Less Than Gods. She gave us a great piece of sheer fun in this novel.
Nell Gwynne’s Scarlet Spy contains the novella The Women of Nell Gwynne and the story “The Bohemian Astrobleme.” (So you don’t need to buy The Women of Nell Gwynne).