the Little Red Reviewer

In The Garden of Iden, by Kage Baker

Posted on: April 12, 2013

garden of IDenIn the Garden of Iden, by Kage Baker

published in 1997

where I got it: library

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I’d read Kage Baker’s The Anvil of the World a while ago and loved it, but where to begin with the rest of her works? Why not start at the beginning, with her first novel, In the Garden of Iden?  Her first “Company” series book, In the Garden of Iden is told in a diary style by Mendoza, a young company operative who is reminiscing about her youth and her first mission.

Saved as a young girl from the Spanish Inquisition, Mendoza is recruited into The Company, a 24th century organization of time travel and artifact hunting. Instead of sending people or cyborgs back in time to collect specimens or change history, they send a few people back with all the technology, recruit “natives”, and offer them immortality and cyborg implants in exchange for being a Company operative.  It sounds gruesome, but Mendoza happily takes this over starving to death in an Inquisition prison. As a native, Mendoza knows the languages and the customs like the back of her hand.

Yes, this is a futuristic scifi  book that takes place one hundred percent in the 16th century. That’s pretty damn awesome when you think about it.   Remember Joss Whedon’s show Dollhouse?  Garden of Iden had a bit of that feel, with operatives being trained to act and roleplay and dress and walk in a certain way, except no hypnotizing or brain scans. All the operatives remember everything that happens to them with perfect clarity. And some of them have been working for The Company for centuries. All of a sudden that sounds awesome, and, uh, really creepy.

Along with senior operatives Joseph and Nefer, Mendoza’s first mission is to collect botanical samples of a rare plant species in England.  Joseph is entertainingly melodramatic and Nefer attemps to be interested in being an older sister type mentor to Mendoza. But this is no vacation, everyone has a very specific job to do.  Cover story in place, the small “family” finds themselves at the estate of Sir Walter Iden, and his famous garden. Mendoza is only eighteen or nineteen when the mission begins, which means she questions what’s going on, doesn’t have the easiest time keeping in character, and is in dire need of guidance.  There’s a lot of coming-of-age here, but not in the way that you’re used to. How does an immortal cyborg operative come of age? Baker is about to show you.

Equal parts tense historical fiction, futuristic science fiction, coming of age, and situational humor, In the Garden of Iden is a great place to start with Kage Baker. A compelling book in every way that matters, I wish I’d read this years ago. The more of Baker’s writing I read, the more of her I want to read.

There’s obviously more going on than Mendoza is aware of, but since the story is from her point of view, we only get hints of  things; that Joseph isn’t who we think he is (although I have my suspicions), that The Company might not be as beneficient as they claim, that some of Mendoza’s cyborg implants didn’t take quite right. Functioning perfectly well as a stand alone, In the Garden of Iden gives just the taste of a much larger story. With a deft hand, Baker imbues every sentence with details and worldbuilding. It’s done so softly that you think you’re just reading something fun and light, but In the Garden of Iden is far deeper than in looks. Questions of identity, morals, and faith rear their ugly head more than once.

I should warn you, this book has quite a bit of romance, much more than I typically go for. Joseph pressures Mendoza into a relationship with Iden’s handsome secretary Nicholas, mostly to keep Nicholas distracted. The distraction works too well, and Mendoza falls head over heels for Nicholas.  Mendoza might be an immortal cyborg, but in so many ways she’s a completely normal nineteen year old who is out in the world for the first time.  A large part of the second half of the book is the lovebirds playing the “how many rooms of this estate can we have sex in” game. This section dragged for me, as I wasn’t anywhere near as interested in their relationship as I was in learning more about The Company. But the hotter their relationship got, the more I knew it was going to end very badly, and the more I knew Mendoza knew how badly it ended and was trying to avoid talking about it.

Baker was an expert in Elizabethan English, and her 16th century characters all speak that way (don’t worry, it’s easy as cake to understand). But when the Company operatives are in private, or wish to quickly communicate something, they talk in modern 21st century sounding slang, confusing the hell out of anyone who happens to over hear them, sounding I imagine something like Jive-talk.  Or failing that, they can always speak to each other telepathically, but sometimes that’s  a breach of privacy.  The dialog between Mendoza, Joseph and Nefer is gut bustingly hilarious at times. You just don’t expect those kinds of phrases to come from thousand year old cyborgs.

Remember I said we were in 16th century England?  Any of you remember your history? England had briefly become officially Protestant until Mary became Queen, married Philip of Spain and pushed Catholicism back on the British Isles. I’m vastly oversimplifying, but Mendoza’s situation becomes very sticky when she’s roleplaying a strict Spanish Catholic and Nicholas is known to be a Protestant lately of a free-love religious cult.  There’s a lot of darkness at the end of the book, a lot of pain, a lot of heartbreak. No one’s first mission for The Company should be like this, it’s just not fair.

If you like historical fiction with a twist, if you like snarky characters who knowingly poke the fourth wall with their playacting melodrama, if you enjoyed Connie Willis’s Doomsday Book, In the Garden of Iden is for you. This is the first Company novel, so what the company does and why is only explained in snippets, and I assume all of that is fleshed out more in the other books. Do yourself a favor and read some Kage Baker. You can thank me later.

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8 Responses to "In The Garden of Iden, by Kage Baker"

You’re in for such a treat with the rest of this series. Lots of twists and revelations!

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oh I can’t wait! there were tons of little hints here and there, but Mendoza has no idea what’s going on yet. . . I LOVE stuff like this!!

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Oh my God the stuff is so very, very, very fleshed out in later books. You are in for many many treats. The series picks up insane momentum and you won’t be able to stop reading. There are so many schemes and foreshadowings and events occurring. Ah it’s great.

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I fell down that hole, and about three books in I was like, Fuck it, I am taking ALL of these out of the library and I am reading them all AT ONCE because they are like PARTS of a larger novel and it felt weird to keep putting that novel down for a few weeks whenever I got to the end of a book.

They are good, is what I’m saying.

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I have The Anvil of the World waiting to be read – my first of her books and sounds like maybe not the last!
Lynn :D

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Perhaps I should add Kage Baker to my list of stuff to read RIGHT NOW BECAUSE IT CAN”T WAIT ANOTHER MINUTE. I’ll have to get page numbers from you though, so I can skip all the love.

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specific page numbers = just about the entire second half. but yes, YOU MUST READ KAGE BAKER! Her Anvil Of The World is a hella fun read – humor, adventure, fantasy, more humor, and zero lovey dovey stuff.

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Noted. Maybe I’ll go so far as to add her to my 2013 Must Read List.

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