I looked back and I can’t believe it’s been almost three years since I wrote a review of Still Life, the first book in Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache series. I’ve been so happy to see a lot of you are enjoying them too.
The Company series by Kage Baker is my next recommendation, but I’m not going to promise you’ll like them. I will say that I love them, and I hope you do too. Of course you must pick up the first book, In the Garden of Iden. The protagonist, Mendoza, time-travels to Elizabethan England to collect samples from the garden of Sir Walter Iden. Oh all right – insert eyeroll at the book title here.
Now that we’re past that, to get the gist of this novel, you’ve got to read the blurb. (I couldn’t decide which part to quote, so here’s the whole thing.)
“And now the news. And it’s grim, we regret to say: today England’s first official victim of the Counter-Reformation was burnt at Smithfield. John Rogers, Canon of Saint Paul’s, long time Reformation agitator and translator of the Matthew Bible, died in the presence of his wife and children in a ceremony lasting twenty-five minutes. Your news team had an operative on the scene and, Diotima, can you tell us about it?”
“Well, Reg, you know I’ve been in the field a long time, and I’ve been there for most of the big events in the Tudor regime, but let me say right now that this hits a new low…“
Poor Mendoza. She’s not thrilled about being sent to Renaissance England. It’s a cold, backward, unsafe country. Gray curtains of rain. The food crawling with bacteria. No flush toilets. She won’t get to see Shakespeare either. He hasn’t been born yet. The English hate the Spanish like smallpox, especially now with bulldog-faced Mary on the throne. But Mendoza is no longer a frightened little girl in the dungeons of the Inquisition; she’s a Company-trained botanist and has an assignment — to save Ilex tormentosum, a species of holly that will go extinct in a hundred years. She must save it for Dr. Z and the twenty-fourth century.
Kage Baker, in her first novel, tells the story of a spunky young cyborg who, though an immortal operative, falls for Master Nicholas Harpole, a mortal with pale blue eyes, good legs, and a smooth, rich tenor that hangs on the air like a violin.
Mendoza’s a great character, right up there with a lot of young heroines we’ve seen in recent books: Hermione, Katniss, Cinder. She’s an intelligent, driven smart-ass, and she’s also having an existential crisis. We know that her romance with Master Harpole is doomed for so many reasons, but through her inner monologues, we get to see how she experiences this relationship with someone who is essentially a different species. Not only is love confusing, but just what will happen to this human? (Hint, he’s a Protestant in Tudor England at the time of Mary I of England’s wedding to Prince Philip of Spain, uh oh.)
Just in case you’re not up on your 16th century English history, you do get a history review when Mendoza’s prepping for the mission. Then later, the literary mechanism of the operatives being all-knowing about the history to come, and catching it as news broadcasts on a computer hidden in a cabinet is brilliant. Mendoza’s not interested, but the other two operatives, Nefer and Joseph (Did I mention he’s the one who originally brought Mendoza into the Company? Don’t fret, he gets a whole book later on.) listen to coverage of the wedding of Mary and Philip:
You’ll recall there was quite a stir earlier when the Prince’s new titles were announced. Supposedly they’re a wedding gift from the Emperor, though it’s popularly speculated that they are in fact a bribe to get the Prince to go through with the wedding.
So just why isn’t this series more popular – why haven’t I seen any CBR reviews or heard recommendations of it from book-loving friends? Baker won a Nebula for one novella and had three novellas nominated for the Hugo award, plus other nominations. Amazon calls it “one of the most popular series in contemporary SF, ” so apparently the series does have its fans, but it’s no Hunger Games or Divergent. From what I recall, it is an uneven series, but how many series hit home runs in every installment? Even Kinsey Millhone can’t escape the mid-series doldrums. I think this gem was published a little too soon. Coming out in 1997, it just missed the YA book trend – it came out the same year as Harry Potter and way before Hunger Games – and so it slipped through the cracks of publishing history. Granted, Mendoza is “immortal,” but she’s stuck in her 18-year-old body, and there you have it, YA.
Baker would go on to write more about The Company – eight main novels and other short stories, but sadly she died in 2010 at the age of 57 of uterine cancer. Her sister and life-long collaborator, Kathleen Bartholomew, has kept kagebaker.com up and running, and there’s a wealth of info on that site about all of the novels and her other writing. For CBR10, in honor of Kage Baker (f— cancer!), I’m going reread and review the eight novels of the series plus one short story collection and see how they stand up to my memory. They are:
- In the Garden of Iden
- Sky Coyote
- Mendoza in Hollywood
- The Graveyard Game
- The Life of the World to Come
- The Children of the Company
- The Machine’s Child
- Gods and Pawns (short story collection)
- The Sons of Heaven
I’d love to see what you all think about Mendoza and The Company.