Monday, June 14, 2010

In the Garden of Iden

In the Garden of Iden, by Kage Baker, is the first book by her I've ever read, and I got interested in reading it because of an enthusiastic review by Jenny.

I literally couldn't put it down. I kept trying, because I had other things to do--at one point Ron pointed out that I'd said I was coming in the kitchen to help him make some food for a party we were going to that evening, and I meant to finish a paragraph and then go do it, but that paragraph led to another, and every time I went back into the room where I'd put the book down, I'd forget everything else I meant to be doing. (I did manage to make some guacamole, watch the U.S. tie England in the World Cup and play a card game called Plague and Pestilence before finishing the book.)

The plot begins with a five-year-old girl in the dungeons of the Spanish Inquisition (ha, nobody expects that!) who is selected to join "The Company" and made into an immortal genius, one of a number of agents who travel back in time to save things that would otherwise be lost. This story begins with the girl, Mendoza, now 18 and traveling back to Tudor England as a botanist charged with saving some rare plants, among them one that can cure a certain type of cancer in the future. It's interesting to see how she fears the frailty of mortals--at a point only 13 years removed from them--like the driver of her coach:
"He was young, there were no traces of alcohol or toxic chemicals in his sweat, his vision was normal, heartbeat and pulse rate normal, muscular coordination above average. He did have an incipient abscessed tooth, but he wasn't aware of it yet, so it wasn't going to distract him from his task."

The way the luggage of the time travelers is disguised is also interesting: "everything issued to a field agent is disguised to look like something else. Even Joseph's book of holo codes for Great Cinema of the Twentieth Century was bound in calfskin with a printer's date of 1547."
But when Mendoza drops her "calfbound copy of the latest issue of Immortal Lifestyles Monthly" in front of a mortal chambermaid, she and fellow agent Nef have to convince the chambermaid that the picture of a robot she has just had a glimpse of is something foreign:
"'Do not be afraid, good Joan. It is what we call in Spain an iron maiden. You have such things here, have you not, to punish the wicked? In this book it doth depict the torments awaiting sinners,' she said firmly, scooping up the magazine and snapping it shut. 'For shame, thou, Rosa. Holy monks labored a year to paint this missal for thee, and wilt thou carelessly drop it?'"

The connotations of the title are not wasted, coming in for their most explicit treatment in a temper tantrum thrown by Mendoza in six different languages. Ideas about perfection and immortality run throughout the story, usually in both historical and time-traveler context, as here:
"In the sixteenth century, Christmas was celebrated from Christmas Day to January 6. In future times, of course, it would shift forward until it began in November and ended abruptly on Christmas Eve, which is how it was calendared at Company bases. I observed the Solstice by climbing from bed to watch the red sun rise out of black cloud, and marked his flaming early death that evening through black leafless branches. So the mystery passed, and the mortals hadn't even begun their celebration yet."

One of my favorite parts is incidental, a description of one of the dishes served at a Tudor Christmas celebration:
"When it hit the table, everyone really stared: it looked great, a sort of sweet rice pilaf, a big mound of rice and nuts and raisins, but all around the edge of the dish were perched big insects sculpted out of almond paste."
When the agents ask why the bugs are there, one of the servers explains:
"Please you, signior, but you said that we must have syrup of locusts to pour about the top, signior, and we had it not, wherefore Mistress Alison made locusts out of marchpane."

This is a fascinating story full of incidental delights. Although I'm still getting the term for Baker's "company" mixed up with the term for Iain Banks' "culture," I think reading a few more novels in each series will clear that up, and now I'm definitely going to read everything I can get my hands on by Kage Baker.

13 comments:

Jenny said...

Yay, I'm glad you liked it! Wait until the plot starts thickening, cause it thickens like mad pretty soon. The next one, Sky Coyote, goes rather slowly in places, so if you get frustrated with it, don't fear! There are better things ahead! :)

Lass said...

This is going on my summer reading list - it sounds great!

Aarti said...

Yay, I'm so glad you liked this one as I have it on my shelf to read. To be honest, it's been on my shelf for a LONG TIME, and I still haven't read it yet. Or Anvil of the World, a stand-alone fantasy she wrote. Soon! How sad the author passed away recently :-(

kittiesx3 said...

Oh I want to read this one.

Nymeth said...

Okay - I seriously NEED this series. Hopefully when I move in September the library at my new location will have it.

Jeanne said...

Jenny, the next one is already on its way to me. I'm intrigued by reading about Nicholas and revelations about him in subsequent books.

Lass, Aarti, Elizabeth, and Nymeth, I can't imagine any one of you disliking this book.

Even for Elizabeth, who I think always wants hard SF, there is mechanism rather than magic.

And Aarti, it is sad to just be discovering an author who died so recently.

Jodie said...

The Company novels sound really good. A while ago I read the first in a new spin off series which was published just before the author died and it was so much fun!

And it is hard to keep all those different societies from long standing series straight sometimes. Maybe authors should all agree to make them really distinct.

Jeanne said...

Jodie, I think these two--company and culture--are distinct; it's just that they both have "c" names!

Trapunto said...

Kage Baker strikes again!

(Rubbing my hands together in satisfaction.)

Jeanne said...

Trapunto, glad you've started the newest Kage Baker craze!

Teena said...

I don't get it... what is syrup of locusts?

Jeanne said...

Teena, I should have quoted the next line: "The locust I meant is an evergreen tree bearing sweet beans."

Memory said...

Jenny convinced me to read this one, too, and I also had trouble putting it down. I can't wait to see how everything unfolds in future Company novels.