Kage Baker, Rude Mechanicals (Subterranean Press, 2007)
Weighing in at a compact 26,000 words or so, this elegant short novel is the latest adventure of Lewis and Joseph, two of the immortal cyborgs in Baker's Company series. As I said in my review of the early novels in this series:
The Company series consists to date of four delightful novels that 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?
Rude Mechanicals is the second tale in this series to deal with Joseph and Lewis being loose in Hollywood during the era of silent pictures. (The first was 'Welcome to Olympus, Mr. Hearst', a delightful romp!) Rude Mechanicals is a comedy of errors caused by Zeus Inc. wanting to hide something so they can retrieve it it later. In this case, a rather valuable gem that Joseph buried in the hills beyond what is now the Hollywood Bowl. The same Hollywood Bowl which has now been deconstructed and moved to make way for an outdoor production of 'A Midsummer's Night Dream'. Now you're thinking what a clever story line this is -- a German Jewish producer putting on a live production of a Shakespeare play during the Golden Age of Hollywood. Costumes, sex, parties, drugs, madcap chases -- what fun! Where does she come up with these great ideas?
From history itself. Kage and her sisters lived in that area as kids as she recounted to me in email: 'Absolutely, Reinhardt did produce and direct MND at the Bowl that year, with exactly that cast. He did, indeed, build and plant the set as described. ' (The planting of the set including full sized trees moved from the hills is what sets the plot in motion. Quite literally in motion.) Even the treasure described here is quite real: 'The Lost Treasure of the Cahuenga Pass is a true story too. And there was, indeed, a secret Hollywood party house high in the hills, with a spider-tiled pool, and a list of the people who used to attend the events there would read like a Who's Who of Old Hollywood. In fact, every single location in the story is real, or was.' So the play's real and the treasure's real as a pre-existing story. What she has added a memorable story of what might have happened if Joseph had been hell-bent on retrieving and hiding (yet again) a rather handsome gem.
(The mortals of Zeus Inc, often come off in my mind as being little better than common thieves or petty junkyard scavengers -- so long as it's pretty or valuable, we'll hide it away so we can look at it many centuries (Digression. A later.)
So the year is 1934 -- Nazism is on the rise in Germany but all is still peaceful in America as the War is not even a shadow upon the sky yet for Americans. German theater impressario Reinhardt is busy recreating A Wood Near Athens while his family remains behind in Germany. (Read carefully and you'll see the oblique reference to this.) Reinhardt speaks no English so, like Marx who had Englees as his translator, Reinhardt has Lewis, immortal cyborg programmed for myriad langauges, including German. to relay his orders in English to the crew and actors, and to (tactfully) render back to him what they are saying. ( Lewis is supposed to be preserving Reinhardt’s promptbooks for future Company retrieval.) Joseph, our other cyborg, is looking to prevent the Lost Treasure of the Cahuenga Pass from being found. But it is found. And lost again as it moves from mortal to mortal.
(Digression. All of this is considerably enhanced by Kage growing up here, knowing the terrain and social mores well, and, as she told me some time ago, spending a fair amount of time doing research on the detailed back story, as good historical fiction is not far removed from what actually happened. For example, there's a scene in Rude Mechanicals where the wedding party in the play get lost. She changes the story for dramatic effect as she noted in an e-mail: 'it's a fact that the Wedding Procession got lost on the hillside in the dark on the night of the dress rehearsal, and legendarily didn't make it down for four hours. The curator at the Bowl museum feels that's wildly exaggerated, and I have to agree -- I played in that valley half my life, and there's no way they could have been stuck that long, so I made it shorter in my story. It's also a fact that the show met with no applause at first, because the audience weren't that used to live theater, and Reinhardt went to bed crushed, thinking it had flopped until next morning when the reviews appeared in the papers.' Like Guy Gavriel Kay's Ysabel , which benefited from his having lived in that region of France where the novel takes place, this novel immensely benefits from her having lived near the Hollywood Bowl.)
Oh, let's not forget the novel itself from a physical viewpoint. Subterranean Press does nothing less than brilliant designs and printing, and this will be, I've no doubt, the same, as it will be a true hardcover. Not a cheap, quickly produced, and soon to be remaindered hardcover that'll be worth a few bucks at your favorite bookstore a few years from now, but a book that likely will be read by someone generations from now who appreciates the pleasure of reading a good novel. Adding to the pleasure are the J.K. Potter illustrations throughout the book and on the wrap-around cover. For my money, it's one of the best covers done for a Company work to date.
Now go read, as I'll not say another word about the plot as it'd only spoil it for you. It's a madcap commedy written by a novelist who's clearly damn near perfect as a writer. What more do you want? You can preorder Rude Mechanicals here and I advise you do so quickly as I'm sure it'll sell out fast. Now you must excuse me as I'm off to read the new Company collection, Gods and Pawns, which arrived here yesterday!