Title: In the Garden of Iden
Author: Kage Baker
Series: The Company #1
Format: Trade Paperback
Genre: Soft SF/SF Romance
This is the novel that launched the popular series: The Company. Dr. Zeus, Inc., sends its agents back in time to collect and preserve works of art, extinct forms of life, all manner of valuable treasures and documents. It recruits orphans throughout history, transforms them into immortal cyborgs, and trains them to serve The Company. Mendoza the botanist is one such agent. She is sent to sixteenth-century England to collect samples from the garden of Sir Walter Iden. But while there, she meets Nicholas Harpole, with whom she falls in love. And that love sounds great bells of change that will echo down the centuries, and through the succeeding novels of The Company.
My first encounter with Kage Baker was a short story in the anthology Wizards: Tales from the Masters of Modern Fantasy. Her contribution was the highlight of that collection for me, a brightly polished gem of a story small in scope and warmly, wonderfully knowing. On the strength of that story alone I decided I would love the author.
This was my first novel by Baker and her first novel as well, and if it was not quite as brightly polished as the short story (which was, after all, written a decade later) it still maintained all the wit, warmth and wisdom.
The premise has rightfully drawn comparisons to Connie Willis' Doomsday Book and To Say Nothing of the Dog. The first chapter, which works as a sort of prologue, introducing The Company and its operatives, is a delight. I especially like the idea that time travel was invented as a byproduct of their invention of immortality, to test whether or not the process worked. But regular SF readers be warned: the first chapter is the only major SF world-building that occurs in this novel. I suspect there is more in later books in the series, but the focus of this novel is much smaller: it is a romance and a coming-of-age story set against the backdrop of Queen Mary's marriage to Prince Philip of Spain and the subsequent Marian Persecutions in England.
There is very little to like about the young Company agent Mendoza. She is spunky, clearly, but also despises humanity and is supremely self-centered. She is, in short, a teenager. Smartly, the Mendoza that narrates the story is much older and wiser, and even if her wry, sardonic tone isn't groundbreaking, it is still very effective. Needless to say, the story Mendoza relates is the story of how she lost that self-centeredness and fell in love with one of the despised humans.
All of those elements, would fit nicely in a Connie Willis novel, and the story moves with ease between the lighthearted tone of To Say Nothing of the Dog and the darker, richer tone of The Doomsday Book. The love interest, Nicholas Harpole, however, would have absolutely no place in a Connie Willis novel -- he is cast from a mold that reminded me very strongly of Father Ignatius in Louisa May Alcott's A Long Fatal Love Chase. Harpole is a martyr, a soldier of god, and he aches to save his beloved's immortal soul -- little knowing her immortal body has already been bought and paid for by The Company. While I share Joseph's evaluation of Harpole far more than Mendoza's, the couple's plight delivers excellent narrative tension, matched nicely by the increasingly grim news reports the Company agents listen to on their subvocal radio. I spent the entire second half of the novel waiting for the guillotine to fall, and when it did I read breathlessly through to the end.
Ultimately, while In the Garden of Iden was not as good as either Connie Willis novel I mentioned, it showed great promise as the start of a series. I'll admit that I cheated and looked at the descriptions of the other books, so I know a bit of where the series is going -- it looks like there will be quite a bit more world-building in later novels, for instance -- but I think even if I did not know that, and if I hadn't loved that short story so much, on the strength of this novel Kage Baker would still have made my "buy immediately" list. Absolutely recommended.