When Kage Baker died from cancer earlier this year, I was regretful that I had never gotten around to reading any of her work. I had always heard good things about her writing, both from friends and from other writers, and had seen she had been nominated for a number of writing awards I value. I always intended to get around to it, but we all know what our reading piles are like and I never did. Wanting to read her work, I ordered Mother Aegypt from Night Shade, as I am a firm believer in starting with an author’s short stories if possible, prescribing to that old adage that if you can’t tell a good story in ten pages, you can’t tell a good one in two hundred.
So the collection is made up of twelve short stories, all reprinted from other publications, and one original novella loosely tied to her Company series. Three of the short stories are set in her fantasy world that features in the novels Anvil of the World and The House of the Stag. The rest are closer to speculative fiction, either being period pieces like “What the Tyger Told Her” and “Nightmare Mountain,” or contemporary tales like “The Summer People.” All in all, there is a good mix of settings, and I found all of them interesting which never hurts.
Starting then with the fantasy tales, two of the stories, “Leaving His Cares Behind Him” (The title inspired by a Jethro Tull song), and “Desolation Rose” are about Lord Emenwyr, the decadent foppish dandy son of a god and a living saint. I have to admit that I love these sorts of characters, and I really enjoyed both the Emenwyr stories. In the first he has to return home in shame having wasted all the money he had and being heavily in debt, only to be admonished by his father the Master of the Mountain who despairs over his expensive pointy purple boots (“when I was his age I didn’t even have shoes”), and suffer the indignity of prostrating himself before his mother as being a saint she already knows all his sins. It doesn’t help that all his brothers act far more divine than he usually does. In the second of the Emenwyr stories, he learns his lesson that it is not always the best idea to impersonate a god in order to sleep with young maidens the hard way. The other story, “The Briscian Saint,” was my least favourite of the three, a story about three mercenaries who end up regretting stealing a sacred statue when looting a town, but I still enjoyed it. Almost instantly I went to try and purchase a copy of Anvil of the World, only to find that unfortunately it is currently out of print. I will however, track down a second hand copy as I really want to read more about Emenwyr’s adventures.
Of the rest of the short stories in the book, it would be hard to pick a favourite. I really enjoyed “What The Tyger Told Her,” a tale of colonial India, where a young girl talks to a captive tiger who teaches her all about the nature of predation and survival as her uncles attempt to woo her recently widowed mother. I also loved “Nightmare Mountain,” a retelling of the Eros and Psyche myth between two southern families in California during the time of the civil war, with a matriarch clearly based on Sarah Winchester. Another story that definitely ranks near the top was “The Two Old Men,” telling the tale of a boy who has to play messenger between God and the Devil in a seaside town as they debate the piety of God’s new servant, the current president JFK. I enjoyed all the other stories as well, but if I had to choose the ones I liked the least, they would probably be “Her Father’s Eyes,” a modern twist on Tam Lin, and the story about alien abduction, “How They Tried to Talk Indian Tony Down.”
Lastly we get the title novella, “Mother Aegypt,” which tells the story of a ruined son of a noble family, now a con man, who joins up with an Egyptian fortune teller and her servant while fleeing capture in Transylvania. Despite being a Company novella, it reads perfectly well as a standalone story, with only the nature of The Company’s business being alluded to when the main character meets a former employee of Mother Aegypt’s. The story is full of intrigue as her servant Emil is some sort of idiot savant capable of performing miracles who may or may not be a vampire, and Aegypt herself is seemingly immortal. The story begins with the absurd image of a fat man in a clown suit running across the plain, and builds to end with an absolutely hilarious even more absurd final scene. It certainly made me eager to read The Company novels.
Overall, I was really impressed by Mother Aegypt and Other Stories, especially by Baker’s masterful storytelling, great sense of humour, interesting characters, and range. One theme that seems to run throughout the collection is that of invisibility, many of the protagonists in the stories are children who are ignored by their parents and other adults. For example, the protagonist of “What The Tyger Told Her”is ignored because her male twin baby brothers are the family heirs, and Markie Souza in “The Two Old Men” because of his mother’s turbulent relationship with her no-good boyfriend. There are also connecting threads between some of the stories. One of the main characters in “Merry Christmas from Navarro Lodge” is mentioned in “The Summer People,” and the female protagonist of “Pueblo, Colorado Has The Answers” is a minor character in “The Two Old Men.” One thing that is certain from reading these stories is that Kage Baker had a true gift for storytelling, and we are all poorer for having lost her.
FanLit thanks Paul Charles Smith from Empty Your Heart of Its Mortal Dream for contributing this guest review.