Kage Baker, Mother Aegypt and
other Stories (Night Shade Books, 2004)

The value of advance uncorrected proofs is not, as some folks on one listserv were saying the other day, so that one can sell them for really big bucks on eBay. (It can be just as bad as the prices are at the booksellers listed on abebooks.com. There's a 'scarce uncorrected proof of Ace Fantasy Special #1' which is better known as Emma Bull's War for the Oaks for sale by one of the book sellers there. Last time I looked, which was earlier this week the asking price was two hundred dollars! Two years ago, it was sixty dollars. Go figure.) No, the value of these sometimes not terribly attractive looking releases is that reviewers get to read them well in advance of their actual publication date. Mother Aegypt and other Stories will not be out for several months yet, but I've been sitting in my office enjoying these tales for the last few evenings. For a lover of the fiction that Baker writes, this is indeed bliss.

Now before reading Mother Aegypt and other Stories, my only experience with Baker was her superb The Company series which I noted in my review of the four published to date novels

detail the serio-comic (with a very dark edge) adventures of the immortal cyborgs of Dr. Zeus, Inc., a for-profit company that has existed for millennia, giving eternal life to mortals and sending them on historic salvage missions — such as salvaging the contents of the Alexandrian library. Did I mention yet that they quite literally get drunk on high-octane chocolate? Or that they have an almost pathological fascination with the Golden Age of Hollywood? And that they act a lot like the Fey do in terms of dealing with mortals?

In addition to the novels, Golden Gryphon Press, another fine small publisher, published a collection of stories in this series, Black Projects, White Knights, and a chapbook, The Angel in the Darkness, that serves as a bridge of sorts to the final three volumes in the series that are being published by Tor, starting this fall with The Life of The World to Come.

Mother Aegypt and other Stories is mostly not set in that series. Though not mentioned by Nightshade Books, Mother Aegypt is a novella set in The Company universe. I won't speculate as to why it isn't promoted as such, but given that the entire Company series involves the mother of all conspiracies, I suppose this seemingly odd oversight somehow fits. I do like Kage's description of Mother Aegypt on her Web site 'An original novella, written especially for this collection. A confidence man, working his way across Transylvania, forms an unlikely partnership with a gypsy and her slave. Possible vampires. Immortals, definitely. Aliens? Well, I wouldn't go that far ....' Mother Aegypt is a delicious romp with a sort of villain that strongly reminds me of the Harry Mudd character from the original Star trek series — fat, lecherous, amoral, and quite stupid. Add in one of the immortals created by The Company, a strange, might be human child, and set it all in the last days of the Ottoman Empire where all is not what it seems. It's not clear where this tale lies in the chronology of that series, but it's well-worth reading.

Setting aside The Company tale, there's lots of other good tales here. 'Leaving His Cares Behind Him' (which she describes this way: 'An episode in the life of Lord Ermenwyr. What happens when a semidivine, semidemonic young playboy decides to visit his parents for the weekend?') reads like the best writing that Zelazny ever did — it has the punning names, immortals, demons, magic that might be technology, and a protagonist every bit as bored as many of his Amber characters. Please understand that I do not lightly make comparisons to Zelazny at his best; almost no one was as good as he was at the particular style of fantasy. Lindskold got it right with Donnerjack, but she missed horribly with Lord Demon. Here Baker has created a tale that Zelazny would nod approvingly of!

Next up on the list of stories I really liked is 'The Briscian Saint' of which she says: 'Three men on the run learn something about Truth, the hard way.' Ahhh, but it's also about the paranoia of being alone in the dark with something that is killing you off one by one without you having a clue what's happening. An apt comparison here would be to the early short stories of Stephen King. Yes, it's that good! Another great read here is 'Merry Christmas From Navarro Lodge, 1928' in which a tale of time-travel gone wrong would have Robert Heinlein wishing he had written it.

(If you get the idea that I'm hinting that Kage Baker is as good, if not at times better, than the Grand Old Men of SF, you're right. If there was any justice in this world, she'd be winning major awards and getting fat publishing contracts. She's that good.)

Aliens, or something that look suspiciously like aliens, make their appearance in 'Pueblo' (which Kage calls 'Pueblo, Colorado Has The Answers' on her site.) Her description of it, 'Time is relative, and so are wasted lives.', doesn't do justice to ever-so-delicious romp of a woman without hope of a meaningful future, a farmer with really weird crops, a government agency with strange solutions to his problems, and the reason that most time travel is a bad idea. Or perhaps not.

Ahhh, then there's the matter of her tale called 'The Summer People', a mortal, as she puts it so well, 'wanders into the Faery Kingdom and makes an ass of himself . . . oh, wait, you've heard this one before?' Yes, but not told quite this way. And perhaps the ass gets what he deserves this.

I could go on for quite some time about the other tales here — all worth savoring. All I'll say is Kage writes with a sense of style and grace that's all too rare these days. Her characters are well-thought out, her plots intelligently written, and each tale feels as if she really cares for the craft of writing. If you like short fiction of a fantastic nature, you'll want to order Mother Aegypt and other Stories from Nightshade Books before it's sold out! Really. Truly. Otherwise you'll regret missing a collection that you'll read over and over again!

[Cat Eldridge]