Kage Baker had many different audiences. After all, she wrote in many genres and formats: fantasy, science fiction, horror, novels, novellas, short stories, series, standalones. (Oh, and: Tor.com blog posts!) It occurred to me recently that, because of this range and variety, readers must have found—and still find—their way to Kage Baker’s works by distinctly different routes.
Just recently a friend mentioned he read one of her fantasy novels, at which point I launched into my standard “Yes, those are awesome, and there are two more novels and a bunch of short stories set in the same universe, but you really also have to read her SF, and there are all these wonderful other short stories, and and and…”
All this to say, in the context of this column, that Kage Baker’s short fiction is a major part of what makes her such a great author. To that end, the wonderful folks at Tachyon Publications are releasing In the Company of Thieves, a new collection that includes a few older Kage Baker favorites along with a brand new story completed by Kage’s sister Kathleen Bartholomew.
Maybe a brief note first about Kathleen: I was fortunate enough to interview her earlier this year, on the occasion of the release of Nell Gwynne’s On Land and at Sea, another one of Kage’s works she completed posthumously. That interview was a bit of a revelation for me: even though I knew Kathleen and Kage worked together, I never really realized how closely until that interview and until I started reading Kathleen’s blog.
Because of this closeness, there’s a great added value to this collection for readers who (like me) already read most of the stories included here: the brief but touching and often revelatory introductions Kathleen Bartholomew provides for each of the stories. (Not to mention the gorgeous cover illustration and design by Tom Canty. Just the font alone!)
The six stories and novellas included in In the Company of Thieves are: “The Carpet Beds of Sutro Park,” “The Unfortunate Gytt,” The Women of Nell Gwynne’s, Mother Aegypt, Rude Mechanicals, and “Hollywood Ikons.” All of these are set in or at least connected to what’s probably Kage Baker’s most popular fictional universe: the sprawling time travel epic known as the Company series.
The opening story “The Carpet Beds of Sutro Park” is the shortest entry in the collection but easily my favorite one of the bunch. It was written in 2007, but for some reason only collected for the first time last year in The Best of Kage Baker (review). This is a gorgeous, moving story that has quickly become one of my favorites by the author. I’m going to add no further details here, so you can read it with fresh eyes. This story is truly something special, and I’m glad to see it appear here again.
The second entry, “The Unfortunate Gytt,” is part of the sequence of steampunk-ish Company spin-off stories that focus on the Victorian Era predecessor of Dr. Zeus, Inc. known as the Gentlemen’s Speculative Society. I developed a new appreciation for these stories (and novellas and novels) since learning, in the aforementioned interview, that Kage had originally envisioned the Company cyborgs more as steampunk-oriented clockwork automata than as, well, what they ended up being. “The Unfortunate Gytt,” which features Edward Alton Bell-Fairfax, is one of only two stories in this collection I hadn’t read or even heard of yet. It’s not Kage Baker’s greatest work, but still a fun addition to this part of the Company series.
Next up is The Women of Nell Gwynne’s, a novella about an all-female auxiliary to the Gentlemen’s Speculative Society: a high-end brothel that specializes in “characterization, theatrical detail and a certain specificity of satiation” to extract all kinds of valuable information from its many powerful patrons. As far as I know, this novella was so far only available as a standalone chapbook (or ebook) from Subterranean Press, so it’s nice to see it collected here.
Mother Aegypt is the second novella included in In the Company of Thieves. It was originally part of the Mother Aegypt and Other Stories collection, which was released in 2004 (in the dark days before Tor picked up the Company series) and which, at the time, was maybe the earliest indication of Kage Baker’s range, offering a taste of all the various styles and genres she worked in. The title story Mother Aegypt was, at the time, sort of an “undercover Company story,” although its protagonist would later make more appearances in the series. It’s a great example of Kage’s ability to be simultaneously hilarious and bitter, and contains a brilliant set piece at the very end.
The third novella in In The Company of Thieves is Rude Mechanicals, which places Joseph and Lewis in the periphery of a legendary old Hollywood staging of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Kage Baker fans probably will get excited about that one sentence summary, as it neatly brings together several of Kage Baker’s interests: old Hollywood, California history, Elizabethan theater, and it’s a Joseph and Lewis story, which is always a treat. The irony of immortal beings pondering mortals’ fleeting lives in the context of the staging of this particular play is awesome: a story about a staging of a play that contains a play within a play itself. This is another novella that previously was only available as a standalone, making this another good reason to pick up this book for your collection.
The final entry in this book is “Hollywood Ikons,” a short story completed from Kage Baker’s notes by her sister. This is another Joseph and Lewis story, but this time narrated directly by Joseph, rather than using Kage’s more usual third person narration. Just like in Sky Coyote, still one of my least favorite entries in the main Company series, this just doesn’t work as well for me. The story also feels as if the author(s) got a bit too enthusiastic about squeezing bits of research into the story, and has more forensics detail than it really needs.
However, despite the issues I had with the final story, In the Company of Thieves is an excellent collection. The three novellas alone are a rich bounty, but with the addition of the gorgeous opening story “The Carpet Beds of Sutro Park” (the only overlap with The Best of Kage Baker) and the hard-to-find “The Unfortunate Gytt,” this collection is a great deal. (I’d still love to see something like a complete “Collected Short Fiction of Kage Baker” in the future, though. Anyone?)
Stefan Raets reads and reviews science fiction and fantasy whenever he isn’t distracted by less important things like eating and sleeping. You can find him on Twitter, and his website is Far Beyond Reality.