Tuesday, October 6, 2015

REVIEW | In the Garden of Iden by Kage Baker

In the Garden of Iden by Kage Baker
Publication Year: 1997
Genre: Fantasy, Historical
Series: The Company #1
Awards: None
Format: Paperback
Narrator: NA

Why?:  It's about cyborgs in Tudor England.  It's like Sci-Fi and Historical Fiction had a baby.  Need I say more?

As is explained right up front In the Garden of Iden, The Company is a corporation, formed sometime in our far future, that has figured out the mystery of time travel.  They have, of course, used this knowledge to make themselves very rich, by sending operatives to "save" extinct organisms, culture, etc... from the past and then reaping the benefits by revealing the continued existence of these thought-to-be-extinct things in their present.  The operatives are not, as you might imagine, future dwellers sent back but are actually children recruited in the far past time, trained, and turned into cyborgs so they are essentially immortal.  They live their long lives working for The Company saving items in their specialty and trying to blend in with, while being contemptuous of, the mortals around them.

The Company operative that narrates In the Garden of Iden is Mendoza, recruited as a 5 year old peasant girl in Inquisition run Spain in the early sixteenth century.  After being thoroughly trained and altered by the company at a hidden facility in 16th century Australia she emerges as a young  botanist, ready for her first assignment.  She will be working as part of a team being deployed to England just after Queen Mary has taken the throne.  Mendoza's team will be working at a manor house owned by Walter Iden that has a spectacular garden with all kinds of rare plants that are extinct in the future.  Mendoza's job is to collect cuttings of all of them so they can be reborn in the future. 

This book has such a terrific premise.  The immortals are brought up and trained in the technology and culture of the future in The Company's hidden facilities around the world. They are people of that past time or of an earlier time but they are steeped in technology and trained to know all that happens in history.  They go into their assignments like an embedded anthropologist, trying to blend in with the current culture, so they are not just scientists but also historians and actors.  All the implants they have been augmented with make them inhumanly smart which in turn makes them arrogant and a little disgusted by the mortals they must interact with during their assignments.  They are playing a constant game of trying to hide their strangeness and blend in while achieving their goals and NOT getting entangled with the mortals they encounter.  Guess what?  In this book some entangling happens.

The book is written as if Mendoza is writing the story many years after the events have occurred.  As many young people fresh out of school and particularly bright, she is cocky and has been so sheltered that she is really unprepared when not only does she not find all the mortals she meets contemptible, dirty and stupid but she actually very much likes the garden owner's factotum, Nicholas Harpole.  As usually happens, feelings complicate everything.

So what do I think?  The premise, despite being very very cool and pretty well executed, did not work for me as I hoped.  The historical fiction aspects of the book were fantastic and Baker did a great job creating a believable Tudor household and weaving in the futuristic elements introduced by the cyborgs. If you are at all interested in the politics, particularly of the religious variety, of Tudor England, this topic is dealt with heavily and well. 

The problem for me really lay with the cyborgs, that is to say the characters.  The way they are imagined is likely pretty realistic but it doesn't make them terribly sympathtic or interesting after their initial introduction.  Mendoza's voice is caustic and cynical, just shy of being dislikeable.  Mendoza's boss on the mission, Joseph, was the immortal I found the most interesting and I would have liked to explore his Point of View but the story stays firmly with Mendoza.  The story, despite being about time traveling cyborgs, is actually pretty quiet, without a lot of action, which isn't a bad thing but wasn't entirely what I was in the mood for.  The two things together made for a mildly dull read. 

However, the book has stayed with me more than others I have read lately - it made an impression.  I do want to continue with the series (there look to be about 12 books?); book two appears to be about Joseph in fact so I am interested to learn more about him! 

FINAL VERDICT:  If you like a good genre mash up you will certainly appreciate this book though it was not quite as exciting an adventure as I'd hoped.  3 out of 5 stars.

Other Opinions Do Exist: SF Site | The Eyrie | NESFA

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