Kage Baker's "The Company" series is winding down, but there are still fists full of short stories, novelettes, and novellas that haven't yet been reprinted, many of them central to the main thrust of the story. Baker fixes that problem with the publication of Gods & Pawns, a book containing seven stories (five reprints, one new for this book, and one never before published) that add to the miasma of impending doom. These stories are all intriguing; only "To the Land Beyond the Sunset" feels a bit unimportant compared to the rest. Unfortunately, that's the book’s opener, making it harder to get into the collection right at the outset. Still, Baker's prose and storytelling is good enough that it's not too much of a drag, and to be the least of this bunch of stories is not necessarily an insult. The name of the book is fitting, as in the Company you're either totally on top or you're used until you aren't usable anymore.
The best of the stories by far is "Welcome to Olympus, Mr. Hearst,” which has two storylines. Lewis has been making a living doing stunt work for Rudolph Valentino since the 1920s. Then, in the early 1930s, he and Joseph go to a weekend party at William Randolph Hearst's mansion, ostensibly to see if he will hide an autographed Valentino script in his safe so that the Company can "discover" it years later. But Joseph has further orders and bigger negotiations with Hearst than Lewis could even dream about. The Company wants more out of Hearst than free storage, but the ever-intelligent Hearst sees bigger possibilities for immortality. I love Baker's prose no matter what story it's in, but in this story it combines with a marvelous plot moving intricately between the fun interaction with various ‘30s movie stars (Clark Gable, Greta Garbo) and the drama of Joseph's negotiations.
Baker's vivid descriptions of Joseph's nervousness add power to Hearst's reputation, making the reader uneasy as well but standing in contrast with the light atmosphere involving the script, the psychic, and Hearst's various guests (not to mention his lover, Marion). Especially hilarious is when the psychic "senses" that Lewis is gay because of his uneasiness around her and the "intense" male spirit that she says wants desperately to communicate with him. The ending is extremely powerful, indicating that it will have a great impact on the future of the series.
The rest of the stories, as self-contained as they might seem, highlight some element that may become important in the last book, or at least show the reader something of what the future will bring. "Standing in His Light" (about a Company facilitator engaging a 17th-century Italian painter to produce paintings that will become valuable in the future once they're hidden away) shows us a little of what the future holds as far as art and culture are concerned. We see how only very basic pictures that don't have anything to do with violence or religion are acceptable, with multiple versions of a girl pouring water being especially valuable.
Two of the stories ("To the Land Beyond the Sunset" and "A Night on the Barbary Coast") give us more on Mendoza's relationship with both Lewis and Joseph. Considering Lewis is in love with her and Joseph sees her as a daughter, not to mention Joseph's intense search for her in The Machine’s Child, it's good to see these relationships emphasized. It's also nice to see Mendoza back in her element of being annoyed with mortals and acting as a botanist, rather than the amnesiac love-toy of Alec in the most recent books. She's always been a favorite (though Joseph is by far the best character), so it’s almost like old-home week.
"The Catch" shows that time travel back and forth actually is possible as Porfirio hunts down a defective given the immortality process too late in life. The boy in a man's body seems continuously drawn to an old billboard of an amazing baseball catch that he saw right before the accident that killed his family. The characterization here is rich, with Porfirio having to explain what's happening despite the companion’s not having the proper security clearance. The Company plays its cards close, only allowing a select few to know what's going on.
Every story in Gods & Pawns is excellent, containing the classic Kage Baker prose that I fell in love with from the beginning and her wonderful characterization skills. Humor abounds, but it doesn't override the inherent drama in some of the stories (the Hearst story has some wildly funny lines to go with the tension). Each story is a step toward the future that we'll see in the final volume, a marvelous feat considering their disparate original publication dates. You'd almost think Baker had planned it this way.
Gods & Pawns is the perfect interlude before the final book comes out this summer. I, for one, can't wait. This only whets the appetite for more.