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In the Garden of Iden by Kage Baker

In the Garden of Iden by Kage Baker
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Book Name: In the Garden of Iden
Author: Kage Baker
Publisher(s): Harcourt
Formatt: Hardcover / Paperback / Audiobook / Ebook
Genre(s): Science Fiction / Time Travel
Release Date: 1997

Technically, my entry for this month (and for the next few months to come) won’t be fantasy. I’ll be delving into science fiction, though you could argue that the Young Wizards series was about as close as you can get to science fiction while still talking about wizards and wizardry. (One of the characters is a white hole, for goodness’ sake!) There isn’t much doubt when it comes to Kage Baker’s Company novels, though. Time travel and cyborgs are definitely in the realm of science fiction.

And I loved every page of it.

In the Garden of Iden, the first book in the series, starts in the midst of the Spanish Inquisition. A little girl with so many siblings she thinks of herself only as Hija (Spanish for daughter) is bought by a noblewoman named Mendoza, who promises her mother she will give the little girl a good life. Mendoza and her colleagues will no doubt strike any reader as kind of shady, but to our little protagonist, they are wonders, sent to give her a good life. That good life they would send never materializes, however, as Inquisitors arrive and arrest everyone in the home, including the girl. She is questioned incessantly until she begins to wonder whether she might be Jewish, even without knowing it. Then, when things seem at their bleakest, a man named Joseph steps in to tell her he has a new future for her. He spirits her out of her cell, and that is when the real wonders begin.

There isn’t really room in a review to do justice to Baker’s Company, but I will do my best to sum up what it is. Basically, someone in the twenty-fourth century discovers time travel, though not the most useful sort which allows you to go anywhen and do anything. Instead, you can only travel between two times – the past and the time period you initially traveled from, meaning only people from the twenty-fourth century can get there the quick way – and you cannot do anything which would affect recorded history. However, especially in the earlier historical periods, this affords a great deal of leeway.

The Company’s mission is to go back in time and ensure various relics thought lost to time are instead recovered in some out of the way corner of the world. Some of their operatives are from the twenty-fourth century, but others, like the little girl saved from the Inquisition, are plucked from the past as children and molded into immortal cyborgs who are utterly loyal to the Company and its work. Why shouldn’t they be? They were all saved from some terrible fate and granted eternal life.

The girl, now called Mendoza, is trained as a botanist and sent to 16th century England, along with Joseph and a few other cyborgs. Her task is to stay in the home of one Walter Iden and collect samples of plants which have some value to the future. Unfortunately, she carries traumatic memories of her time spent with the Inquisitors and is about to be sent to a country which is in the midst of deciding whether it will be Catholic or Protestant. She arrives in England during the reign of Mary I, also known as Bloody Mary, just before she is to marry Philip of Spain. Tensions are running high in the country, and it doesn’t help that Nicholas Harpole, a man who works for Iden, is a fervent Protestant.

Naturally, sparks fly between Mendoza in Nicholas, in both senses of the phrase.

The whole book feels like a downward fall toward something dreadful, especially for those who are familiar with that period in English history and who know that “cyborgs come to a garden, collect samples, and leave without any further incident” would make a rather dull book indeed. Mendoza’s relationship with Nicholas provides the perfect tension for the setting. On the one hand, she is pretending to be a Catholic Spaniard, which causes the rest of the mortals to look askance at her closeness with the zealously Protestant Nicholas. For another, despite being an immortal cyborg, it has only been fifteen years since Joseph brought her to the Company, and she is still relatively young and naïve. She believes Nicholas to be different from the other mortals, and because we see him through her eyes, we believe her. He stands out from everyone else, and I found myself falling a little in love with him as well.

I cannot predict the exact moment when I knew everything would fall to pieces. I only knew that this was not one of those historical fiction books where everything would wrap up neatly. For one thing, the conflicts between Protestants and Catholics were anything but neat; in England as in the rest of Europe, they were a bloody series of conflicts which can leave tensions high even today. For another, Mendoza’s tone throughout the book has hints of some catastrophe, of the bitterness and sorrow it left her with. I don’t think it’s much of a spoiler to say that not all goes well.

Even with the dread hanging over the book, there were moments of wonder, especially in the garden and in Mendoza’s seeing snow for the first time. History, especially when one lives through it, is neither all gloom nor all joy. It is both of those mixed together, and Baker does an excellent job at balancing both.

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