Kage Baker,
Or Else My Lady Keeps the Key
(Subterranean Press, 2008)

Having served his time as both pirate and privateer, John James looks forward to nothing so much as resuming his interrupted trade as a bricklayer on some sunny Caribbean island. He has just one final task to perform -- delivering the final words of a friend in a letter to one Mrs. Waverly, his pining mistress in Port Royal.

But the letter contains the clue to the dead pirate's personal treasure, and soon John has been persuaded to take one last voyage to help the distressed lady to reclaim the sum -- for which, she assures him, she will happily split the proceeds.

But author Kage Baker -- who has made her name in both fantasy and science fiction, primarily with her novels about The Company -- would never allow even so simple a journey to pass unmolested. In this case, it's pirates, who board and capture their ship and take John, Mrs. Waverly and a handful of additional passengers and crewmen along for the ride. It's also a devastating storm at sea, which has consequences I won't reveal here. It's possibly even the ghosts of drowned slaves and, just maybe, a few bedraggled African spirits who have crossed the sea with their people.

And Mrs. Waverly is surely a rose with many thorns on her otherwise lovely stem.

Short and compact, Or Else My Lady Keeps the Key is a muscular tale with a great plot and exceptionally well-drawn characters surrounding our two protagonists. At 184 pages, potential readers might balk at the price, but those who can afford it (or borrow it) will find it a satisfying value.

The Company and other fictions notwithstanding, Or Else My Lady is almost entirely devoid of fantasy elements; with the exception of the rarely seen, barely tangible ghosts and spirits, this is a historical tale deeply rooted in the lore of the sea at a time when pirates and buried treasures captured the public's imagination.

I don't know Baker's plans, but I hope to see some of these characters return again someday in another adventure.

review by
Tom Knapp

1 December 2007

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