Your reaction to the announcement of Not Less Than Gods by consistently excellent SF and fantasy author Kage Baker will probably depend to a large extent on how familiar you are with her The Company series. If you haven’t read any of the Company novels or collections, the story of the Gentlemen’s Speculative Society (GSS) and one of its operatives, Edward Alton Fairfax-Bell, sounds like an interesting and entertaining steampunk novel. However, if you’re familiar with the Company series, your reaction to a novel about “Edward’s creation and recruitment by the GSS, his training, and his first mission” will probably be more of the “I want it and I want it NOW!” variety, with the number of exclamation points determined by how enthusiastic you are about the main series. (I limited myself to one, to avoid the impression that this review was written by a teenage girl. Mentally, please feel free to add a few more.)
In a nutshell, the Company series deals with the operatives of Dr. Zeus Inc., a 24th century company that has discovered the secret of time travel and naturally decides to use it for corporate profit, sending quasi-immortal cyborgs back in time to collect lost art, extinct plants and so on.
One of the things I like best about the Company series is the way the information is slowly revealed throughout the series. For example, the excellent first novel in the series, In the Garden of Iden, at first reads like a more or less self-contained story about Company botanist Mendoza, but it takes on a completely different meaning when you read the later books in the series, because there’s a huge story arc building up throughout the series, with layers upon layers added to the plot and the characters as the revelations build up.
The two stand-alone Company novels Kage Baker released after the completion of the main series, The Empress of Mars and Not Less than Gods, have a completely different impact depending on how familiar you are with the series, because fans already know the entire story and are now being filled in on specific aspects of it — in the case of Not Less Than Gods, the early life of Edward Alton Fairfax-Bell, who makes his first Company series appearance in Mendoza in Hollywood. In that sense, it’s a bit similar to The Life of the World to Come, but about Edward rather than Alex Checkerfield. Even though it feels like a prequel, using that term doesn’t make much sense in a series that deals with the nature of time travel.
Even if you haven’t read any of the Company novels, Not Less Than Gods is still a very entertaining read. Kage Baker includes enough hints about the nature of the Company to make sure that new readers will have a broad idea of what’s going on — or at least as much as the main characters do. Even without this, the novel is a rollicking adventure story set in the Victorian era, about a small group of GSS agents traveling across Europe and the Middle East, causing havoc and (in the process) affecting history in several ways. They’re armed with an array of — for that period — advanced gadgets and weaponry, a distinct appreciation for alcoholic beverages, and a good dose of jolly-old-boy British witticisms. Young Edward is a fascinating character, different from his peers in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, idealistic, tortured, and brave. As always, Kage Baker‘s prose is delightfully sly, always sounding as if she is sharing a subtle joke with her readers, gradually drawing you in as she unfolds the plot.
As a long-time fan of Kage Baker, I was extremely pleased with Not Less Than Gods. If you’re in the market for an excellent SF series, I’d probably still recommend starting with In the Garden of Iden first, but Not Less Than Gods is a solid addition to the Company series and works surprisingly well as a standalone novel.