Kage Baker left us far too soon. Her untimely death in 2010, at age 57, was an immense loss for the science fiction and fantasy world, but she’s sure to pop up on recommended reading lists for many years to come thanks to the treasure trove of genre fiction she left us, spread across about a dozen novels and several short story collections.
The Best of Kage Baker is a brand new collection from Subterranean Press containing twenty examples of her brilliant short fiction as well as a set of beautiful, eerie illustrations by J.K. Potter.
Baker will probably always be best known for her historical time travel science fiction series about the Company, starting with her memorable debut novel In the Garden of Iden. The first four novels in the series were originally published by Harcourt and, for the mass market paperback editions, the Avon Books SF imprint Eos. After The Graveyard Game, the series ended up in limbo for years until Tor picked it up. During that period, Golden Gryphon released a beautiful (but at the time somewhat confusing) collection of stories called Black Projects, White Knights: The Company Dossiers. After this, dedicated fans could occasionally find new Company short stories online and in magazines, but it took some work to get your Company fix and, mostly, it was a frustrating waiting game. Thank goodness Tor finally re-released the out-of-print early books and published the long-awaited concluding volumes.
Some of the short stories written in those years eventually found their way into the various collections Kage would go on to release, and others appeared elsewhere, in various anthologies or as standalone novellas, making them harder (and pricier) to track down nowadays. Subterranean Press’s new collection The Best of Kage Baker offers a combination of both: nine of the included stories can be found in Kage’s existing collections, while the rest have never been collected together in one volume. Because of this, the book will be a bit of a mixed blessing for long time fans: you’re sure to have at least half of these stories on your shelf already, but there’s also a good chance that you’re missing some or all of the previously uncollected ones... and that makes The Best of Kage Baker a very hard book to say no to.
The collection kicks off with a set of six Company stories that make a great alternative introduction to the series for people who haven’t read the novels yet. The first three of these stories were previously collected in Black Projects, White Knights and include what I believe is Kage’s first published story “Noble Mold” as well as “Old Flat Top” and “Hanuman.” I’ve never been crazy about “Old Flat Top” (it’s a big infodump more than a story) but “Noble Mold” and especially “Hanuman” (set right before the events related in Mendoza in Hollywood) are both wonderful.
From Children of the Company we get the stunning Hugo-nominated novella “Son Observe the Time”, which combines the story of a massive Company salvage operation before, during and after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake with key pieces of the Company story arc. From Gods and Pawns we get “Welcome to Olympus, Mr. Hearst”, yet another brilliant example of a novella that works both as a standalone story and as an introduction to the Company, and “The Catch”, a Porfirio story about an early attempt to create a Company operative.
After these six Company stories, the tone changes abruptly with “Leaving His Cares Behind”, a piece set in Kage Baker’s Anvil of the World fantasy universe about Ermenwyr, the son of the Dark Lord of the Mountain and the Living Saint. This is a light, fun story that makes a good introduction to the author’s second main fictional universe, but I don’t think it’s even the best story set in this world. The second entry from Mother Aegypt and Other Stories is the superb “What the Tyger Told Her”, a chilling look at a Victorian family intrigue through the eyes of a young child and easily one of Baker’s best stories. It’s somewhat unfair to second-guess “Best of” collections, but still, I would have loved to see another story or two from Mother Aegypt and Other Stories included here. Instead, the last story taken from previous Kage Baker collections is the wonderful beachfront Cthulhu tale “Calamari Curls” from Dark Mondays.
And then we get to the “Previously Uncollected” section of the book, with a generous eleven more stories that many readers may not have in their collections yet. “Maelstrom” is essentially a side-story to the Company spin-off novel The Empress of Mars, originally included in the New Space Opera anthology. “Speed, Speed the Cable” is a side-story to the Company spin-off novel Not Less than Gods about the Gentlemen’s Speculative Society and originally appeared in the steampunk anthology Extraordinary Engines. “Caverns of Mystery” is a masterful ghost story. “Are You Afflicted with Dragons?” is fun but forgettable, one of the few stories in this book I would have liked to exchange for another one. “I Begyn as I Meane to Go On” is a great pirate story from the Fast Ships, Black Sails anthology edited by the VanderMeers.
“The Ruby Incomparable” is set in Baker’s Anvil of the World fantasy universe, and much better than the earlier story about Ermenwyr. “Plotters and Shooters” is a somewhat predictable SF story from Lou Anders’ first Fast Forward anthology. “The Faithful” is a fun little story that’s all about the surprising end twist. “The Leaping Lover” is one of the most surprising entries in the collection, a Victorian whodunnit that shows off the author’s astonishing range — was there anything she couldn’t write? “Bad Machine” is an Alec Checkerfield story that feels like a practice run for that part of the Company story arc, entertaining but nothing new if you’ve read the later Company novels.
The final story in the collection, “The Carpet Beds of Sutro Park”, is nothing less than heartbreaking. It’s hard not to read this and think about all its implications, and all the stories Kage Baker never got to write. Placing this story at the very end of the collection was a brilliant decision and increases the poignancy factor of this book exponentially.
In the end, The Best of Kage Baker is a great set of stories that shows off Baker’s immense talent as a writer. Content-wise, this is — as you’d expect — an incredibly strong collection. My only reservation is that it feels like this book wants to be two things at once. It’s like one of those Greatest Hits albums where the record label also includes a few new songs or B-side rarities, almost forcing fans to buy the album even though they already have all of the hits.
Fortunately we don’t just get one or two new pieces. About half of this edition consists of previously uncollected stories, so there’s more than enough new material here to justify the purchase even for dedicated fans. Still, what would have really been exciting is two separate volumes: a true “greatest hits” with Baker’s very best stories, and a separate book with all the previously uncollected stories (there are several more that aren’t collected here) or, even better, something like a Complete Kage Baker mammoth book with every single short story, novelette and novella she produced. It would also have been nice to include a brief overview of the author’s career and some notes about the stories.
Still, that’s all just wishful thinking. What we have instead is The Best of Kage Baker, a very generous portion of old favorites and lesser known stories by a talented author who left us far too soon. Depending on how much you love Kage Baker’s works, this may just be a must-own book for you.