Nell Gwynne’s On Land And At Sea by Kage Baker and Kathleen Bartholomew (book review).

When an author dies at the peak of their career it creates dilemmas, especially if there are unfinished manuscripts. There is always that temptation for someone to step in and try to complete the job. More than one person has attempted to second-guess Charles Dickens and produce an ending for ‘Edwin Drood’. Other times, and often more sensibly, the manuscript is either published as unfinished business or it never sees the light of day. The approach might depend on how much had been written and whether the author had previously communicated, by verbal or written notes, their intentions. A matter of polishing can produce a satisfactory and poignant final work.


Then there is the clamour of the readers for the estate to take into consideration. For a popular series, it is not unknown for other writers to be commissioned to write other tales set in the same world, against the same background or with the same characters. Thus is born the franchise. When authors have offspring that are already competent in their own right, the series might be inherited. In some cases, this can work but, too often, the beneficiary has a different style and outlook and interest ultimately falls away.

Fortunately, there are not many writers who have hit the peaks of enthusiasm as have the readers of J.R.R. Tolkein’s work. A trawl through his notes and jottings has been lucrative for his estate though some of the output is of academic interest only.

With ‘Nell Gwynne’s On Land And At Sea’, it is not obvious how much was left unfinished at Kage Baker’s death as the whole flows smoothly. The story isn’t quite a ‘Company’ novel, as it involves none of the immortals enhanced for their role of saving Earth’s treasures. Instead, it is more closely linked with the characters in ‘Not Less Than Gods’. In that novel, we were introduced to members of the Victorian Gentlemen’s Speculative Society. The headquarters of the Society is in London and there are, beneath the capital, technological developments that are in advance of the time. The members, though, need recreational facilities so within the building is a brothel. There, the working girls have a role as spies and information collectors for the Gentlemen. The establishment is known as Nell Gwynne’s. Every summer, the proprietress, Mrs. Corvey, takes her Ladies to the coast for a month’s holiday, usually in Torquay. Each of the Ladies has a different interest which they take the opportunity to explore.

While walking on the cliffs, Mrs. Corvey, whose vision was enhanced by a mechanical zoom lens after she lost her sight courtesy of the Gentlemen, spots a strange episode at sea.

It appears to involve a sailing ship and something under the water. They become suspicious of an American who takes a fancy to Lady Beatrice. Mrs. Corvey encourages the liaison in the hope of discovering something of interest. She reports the occurrences to the Gentleman but as there is no-one available to investigate, she and her Ladies are forced to take matters into their own hands.

The story itself is pure Victorian hokum but all the more enjoyable for that. It can be regarded as Kage Baker’s last work and as such is of interest to her fans. There is little space for in depth characterisation as there are a fair number of them, each having their role to play. It is not a story or setting that lends itself to subtlety but makes for a playful addition to her oeuvre. It will also interest aficionados of steampunk.

Pauline Morgan

January 2014

(pub: Subterranean Press. 174 page occasionally illustrated deluxe hardback. Price: $35.00 (US). ISBN: 978-1-59606-464-5)

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