The “ladies” of Nell Gwynne’s work hard for their money, providing elite custom “services” to the important men who run England. These men think Nell Gwynne’s girls are very good at what they do, but they have no idea what’s really going on inside those pretty little heads. In actuality, all of Nell Gwynne’s ladies are thoroughly educated and quite accomplished because their “real” job is to spy for the Gentlemen’s Speculative Society (the predecessor of Kage Baker’s The Company).
Their work is exhausting, so each year Nell Gwynne’s takes a holiday — without men, of course! This year they’ve gone to Torquay where they plan to spend a month resting, sunbathing, swimming, shopping, reading, and pursuing some of their personal hobbies (such as archaeological excavation). But when they get to the seaside town, they run into a loud and boisterous American man who may be planning a crime that will threaten England’s security. When the ladies alert the Gentlemen’s Speculative Society about the suspected plot, the Society has no agents to send to Torquay, so the ladies must investigate and, if necessary, stop the madman’s plans. There are other delicate associated issues; the crazy American has fallen in love with one of the ladies and Mrs. Corvey, the proprietor of Nell Gwynne’s, must find and hire a new cook before they get back to London. Can the girls accomplish their goals without blowing their cover? And will they get to enjoy their vacation?
Kage Baker is one of my favorite writers and she doesn’t disappoint with Nell Gwynne’s On Land and At Sea, her final work. This is a quick-moving short novel with likable characters and plenty of action, but two things set it apart from other fun stories. One is Kage Baker’s excellent storytelling skills and her succinct style. Similar to Ursula Le Guin, Baker makes every word count and she can tell a better story with 25,000 words than most authors can with twice that many. Therefore, characters and setting feel fully developed but the plot’s pace never suffers with detailed backstories and description.
The other is Baker’s delightful sense of humor which, similar to Jack Vance’s, is best described as droll. You wouldn’t call Nell Gwynne’s On Land and At Sea a comedy, at least not on the surface, but it’s very funny nonetheless. The subplot with the cook, for example, is hilarious but subtle, relying on the absurdity of the situation and its deadpan delivery rather than the sarcastic snark which counts for humor in so many fantasy novels these days. In fact, the entire premise of a spying whorehouse is pretty comical and Baker has fun with it. In an early scene she shows the “ladies” at work, gamely fulfilling their clients’ silly fantasies and, in an incongruous contrast, we later see them donning bullet-proof corset stays before heading out to stop the bad guys.
Nell Gwynne’s On Land and At Sea was unfinished when Kage Baker died two years ago. She left notes which helped her sister, Kathleen Bartholomew, finish the novella. I wouldn’t have known that Baker hadn’t written the whole thing if I hadn’t seen Bartholomew’s name on the cover. The book is illustrated by J.K. Potter.
Fans will definitely want to read Nell Gwynne’s On Land and At Sea, but this is also a fine place to start if you’re new to Baker’s work. You don’t need to have read the previous novels about Nell Gwynne’s, The Company, or The Gentlemen’s Speculative Society, but after you’ve read Nell Gwynne’s On Land and At Sea, I think you’ll want to.