In Good Company: Nell Gywnne’s On Land and At Sea

“Posthumous collaborations” tend to have a somewhat uneven track record. For every Poodle Springs, you’ve got a handful of “Lurker at the Threshold”s, whereby the fit in prose, storytelling, and vision between the original, deceased author and the one stepping in to finish the tale isn’t quite perfect. Even when it’s one elite author picking up for another, the results can be uneven. Witness, for example, Psycho-Shop, where the combined talents of Roger Zelazny and Alfred Bester produced whiplash-inducing changes in tone, and a book that even Greg Bear felt compelled to describe as “a dark acid curio”.

And so, it’s to be expected that fans of the late Kage Baker’s Company series might approach Nell Gwynne’s On Land and At Sea, finished after Baker’s death from an incomplete manuscript, with some caution. No matter what, it would not be a pure, unadulterated product of Baker’s imagination. At best, it would remain true in spirit and in style to the original, but at worst, well, there’s always the example of August Derleth’s pursuit of the fragments in H.P. Lovecraft’s commonplace book to serve as abject warning.

There was, however, reason for hope. The writer tasked by Subterrannean with bringing Baker’s work to fruition was Kathleen Bartholomew, Baker’s sister and editor. Who better, then, to close the seams and finish the tale?

But all the guessing and hope and fear has to end somewhere, which is to say, at the moment the book is cracked open to page one. Then the words, hopefully, speak for themselves, and speculation gives way to fact – or at least, experience.

Nell Gwynne’s is, as fans of the Company know, the rather remarkable cathouse run in collaboration with the wonkish Gentleman’s Speculative Society. Skilled at extracting secrets, as well as other, more prurient things, the young women of Nell Gwynne’s perform invaluable services to the GSS, and so none can gainsay them a well-earned holiday on the beach under the watchful (cybernetic) eyes of their handler, Mrs. Corvey. Unfortunately, however, their vacation is not as restful as one might hope. An American industrialist with an overdeveloped sense of Anglophilia is on the prowl in the seaside town of Torquay, and he’s more than just a lovestruck suitor for the hand of one of Nell Gwynne’s most talented operatives. He’s also apparently got himself a submersible, with a steam-powered supergun on top and a villainous henchman willing to use it. With no aid forthcoming from the GSS (not that they need it), the ladies of Nell Gwynne’s must discover what the bombastic Mr. Pickett is up to before his outsized sense of honor leads England into war and Lady Beatrice down the aisle.

The discerning reader will immediately note the differences from Baker’s previous sojourn into the Nell Gwynne’s sub-continuity; a slightly more slapstick tone, language that’s a bit more arch, character portrayals that are a bit less subtle and more of an emphasis on direct action. At the same time, though, the tone is uniform throughout; there are none of the jagged edges between sections that mark, for example, the Zelazny-Bester collaboration cited earlier. The characterizations remain absolutely spot-on; fans of Lady Beatrice will not find themselves whiplashed by a sudden swooning predilection for romance. And the new style, while recognizably not a precise match for Baker’s solo work, does have a distinct voice and a tone of its own.

The question is, however, not whether or not that voice is distinct. It’s whether it’s any good and – in a separate but related question, whether fans of the Company books and of the Nell Gwynne’s subset thereof will enjoy it. To both, the answer is a qualified but hopeful “yes”. No, Bartholomew does not have a note-perfect Baker impression down, nor should she. Yes, she does have a distinctive and often enjoyable voice of her one, one that capably picks up the banner of Baker’s work and carries it forward. This is, after all, Bartholomew’s first real stab at things; she does a quite credible job, and there are definite signs she’ll improve with more bites at the theobromos-coated apple. Readers hoping for a seamless transition, or, more accurately, no indication that any hands but Baker’s own touched the book will possibly be disappointed here, but those willing to give Bartholomew the space to find her own voice will find plenty in the book to like.

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