Hardcover: 320 pages
Publisher: Tor Books; 1 edition
Publication Date: March 16, 2010
Author Website: Kage Baker
Not Less than Gods was presented to this reviewer as a novel which would easily allow me to learn more about Kage Baker’s greatest creation ,The Company, and at the same time, be easily navigable for any reader not familiar with Baker’s previously published works. Most of Baker’s work is about this group of individuals who work behind the scenes in a future human society, pulling the strings as it were.
In Not Less than Gods Baker transplants this concept to the Victorian era, presenting to readers a story of steampunk spies. Part Innocents Abroad style travelogue, part Jules Verne adventure, and part Roger Moore’s James Bond, the story follows four companions of The Gentleman’s Speculative Society. This secret society, with access to “technologia” unknown to the rest of the world, sends four of their men on a Middle Eastern adventure to gather intelligence that their higher ups will use to their advantage in their machinations of governments and human culture.
Edward Alton-Fairfax is the primary protagonist. His companions on the mission provide a counterpoint to his choices and growth into a “Victorian super-assassin”. Conceived on the order of a time-traveler from the society’s future, Edward is gifted in height, hearing, and charisma. He is the James Bond of the Victorian era. Much importance is placed on Edward’s origins at the beginning of the novel, and perhaps his name has significance to readers of the Company novels, but to a new reader, the emphasis placed on Edward is not borne out by what follows. He is one among four, and it is Ludbridge – the leader and decision maker of the group – who drives the plot. Edward provides muscle and the occasional flash of insight, but it seems odd that such a fuss is made over him in this work, that is unless Edward played a large part in previously published novels.
The plot is a tad disconnected. Besides the origin story of Edward, much of the tale reads like a travelogue of the period, with the group moving from locale to locale, which is then punctuated by the group encountering some new piece of technology (which would eventually be commonplace in our time) and then moving one. While this is interesting to a certain extent, it keeps the novel from having any real attraction. The only real conflict of the story seems to be chance encounters with counterspies. Unlike other spy novels, there is no real heightening of suspense. This could be chalked up to Baker’s desire to have the characters react according to period personality, but what results is dry, boring, and glacially paced.
What is not boring is Baker’s style. Baker captures the nuances, personalities, and perceptions of the nineteenth century will droll dialogue, sentence structure that feels period, and an overall tone that mirrors its historical counterparts. Baker undeniably understands the nineteenth century Victorian mindset, and so her characters have a very real, very true quality to them. This does cause some of the characters to seem rather flat in affect, though that is more in keeping with the prim and proper lifestyle a reader may often associate with the Victorian period.
Though I like Baker’ style, and I loved her steampunk novella The Women of Nell Gwynne’s, I felt that Not Less than Gods was a bit too contrived in plot structure (I felt I could actually see her plot outline in my head, and so was very nearly able to predict what would happen next) and too lacking in real suspense to be great. Though it is a good entrance for readers not familiar with The Company series, it is not an example of Baker’s best work, which is sad because, since her passing of cancer in January, this and one other will be the last new works from the usually gifted pen of Kage Baker.