Because I don’t have enough other series in progress, I decided to pick up Kage Baker’s Company books. I’d read the first two back when they came out and liked them, but put them aside to see if she actually finished the series and in good fashion. Well, she did, and remarkably rapidly too: eight volumes in ten years, with two short story collections (plus her fantasy novel The Anvil of the World and another collection that I haven’t read yet). The general consensus seems to be that the series concludes well, and they seemed to be about right for my current levels of energy and time: absorbing and with a good overall mystery to pull me forward, but not too dense or dark.
Judging by my re-read of the first two, this seems to have been a good call. The series opens with In the Garden of Iden, which is told in first-person retrospective by Mendoza, a botanist for the Company. She describes the setup very well in the first chapter, which is online and which I recommend. But the short version is that the Company, Dr. Zeus, invented time travel (backwards only) and a form of immortality in the 24th century [*]. It established bases in the distant past, turned a lot of children into immortals, and set them to work through time collecting genetic material, art, and other things that would not interfere with recorded history but that would generate fabulous profits when “rediscovered” in the 24th century. But when all those patient immortals catch up to the 24th century, what then?
[*] I suspect Baker may have had a better idea about the timeline later, but that’s a minor point.
Well, eventually the series will get there, but it starts in Spain in the 15th century, where Mendoza is rescued from the Inquisition and turned into an immortal. She chooses botany as a field because she hopes to avoid assignments with mortals; instead, she’s sent to England for what is supposed to be a quiet assignment collecting plant specimens. Except she’s been sent in as part of a team with Spanish cover identities during the brief reign of Mary I, a.k.a. Bloody Mary, and there’s this fascinating mortal man with emphatic religious views . . . (Hence the deliberate reference in the title, though the garden in question did belong to descendants of an actual historical figure named Alexander Iden.)
I liked this book a lot for Mendoza’s voice, her mix of cynicism and passion, and the effective way that Baker slides into the explicitly retrospective parts of Mendoza’s narration to leaven the teenage perspective. I’m unable to evaluate the accuracy of the historical portions, though I believe I’ve heard good things about it. Like the next book, I think the plot is a bit back-loaded, but the characters and narration carried me through.
The next book, Sky Coyote, is narrated by Joseph, who recruited Mendoza and was the leader of her first mission. It’s 1700 and the Company is going to whisk an entire village of Chumash, a California tribe, off for preservation (genetic material stored, cultural information sucked dry, and complete environmental samples taken). Joseph is to play Sky Coyote, the trickster god, and convince the village to agree; and Mendoza is back as a botanist.
Joseph’s narration, also first-person retrospective, is great fun and enlightening. Besides his healthy appreciation for the absurd (see this excerpt online), he knows a lot more about the Company because he was recruited in 20,000 BC or so. There are hints about the Company’s dark past and not-so-light present, and the first mention of the Silence, the date in 2355 after which the Company’s operatives in the past are given no information. The meat of the book, to me, is developing Joseph and the Company. The plot about the Chumash felt rather conflict-free until late, and I couldn’t help but be conscious of its blatant wish-fulfillment aspect—though, to be fair, I think the book is also conscious of it and makes an effort to acknowledge that though these villagers will not see the arrival of the Spanish, it’s still an ending for them and linked to a larger ending for the American Indian tribes. Also, the book is having such fun in smashing stereotypes that I couldn’t help enjoy it. As a Company immortal sums up the Chumash,
“They’re hunter-gatherers but also industrialists, if you can imagine that. They produce a wide variety of objects manufactured specifically for trade with other local tribes. They’ve developed a monetary system that other tribes have had to adopt in order to do business with them, but they’ve retained sole rights to the manufacture of the shell money they use. . . . These people have saunas. They have municipal centers for organized sporting events. They have ballet. They have stand-up comedians. I think most people would define that as the Good Life.”
“Sound like stereotypical Californians to me.”
Or, as one of the Company’s investors from the 24th century puts it,
“These Indians aren’t like the Hopi or the Navajo. Those were clean, peaceful Indians with an advanced society and beautiful mythology. They farmed and they built houses the way we do. These Chumash are different. They’re dirty-minded, lazy, pleasure-loving Indians.”
(The, err, differences in worldview between the historically-recruited immortals and the 24th-century members of the Company—mortal and immortal—is another source of conflict in the novel and presumably in the rest of the series.)
Anyway, so far so good, and I’m looking forward to the next book, which returns to Mendoza’s point of view.