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Kage Baker
In the Garden of Iden
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2005

Avon Eos / Avon Books
US Mass Market Paperback
ISBN 0-380-73179-7
313 Pages; $5.99
Publication Date: 11-01-1998 (First Hardcover Edition 02-15-1998)
Date Reviewed: 01-15-05

Index:  Science Fiction   Fantasy  General Fiction,

Mendoza is a botanist and quite a bit more. As the narrator for Kage Baker's first novel 'In the Garden of Iden', she has a number of daunting tasks. She has to save plants that might otherwise be lost while introducing the reader to Baker's cleverly conceived combination of the deep past and the far future. She has to conceal not only her encyclopedic knowledge of history and the technology that her benefactors at Doctor Zeus, Incorporated have implanted in her, she must also conceal her heart. Rest assured that all will be well but not end well, that Mendoza will complete her mission and that her heart will never be the same after her time in the titular garden of Sir Walter Iden. But don't plan on too much rest while reading this thoroughly engrossing, entertaining and original novel. Kage Baker needs no cybernetic implants or advanced technology to spin a captivating tale. She needs only Mendoza's voice rendered in her own enticing prose.

'In the Garden of Iden' is the first in Baker's "Novels of the Company" series. The company is Doctor Zeus, Incorporated, and they're dedicated to saving the future by discretely changing the past. Saved from the Spanish Inquisition at the age of five, Mendoza is remade into an immortal cyborg and part of a task force that rescues valuable substances, artifacts and other items from the past and makes sure they're available to a future that requires them. From the first paragraph, Baker establishes a breezy, straightforward style that's a pleasure to read. Nothing is concealed, nothing is tricky, and everything that Mendoza knows is there for the reader to know. Fortunately for the reader, there's quite a bit that Mendoza doesn't know.

After being snatched from the jaws of Inquisition, Mendoza is re-created and re-educated. As she learns what becomes of humanity throughout the cruelties of history, she comes to hate the "killer apes", and wants nothing more than to be assigned to some remote jungle where she can enjoy the company of plants and scholarship. Instead, she's sent to dark, cold, dreary England to study plants amidst the cramped quarters of a run-down English country house. There, much to her surprise, she finds that mortals aren't as reprehensible in specific as they are en masse. In fact, one specific mortal, a religious heretic named Nicholas Harpole, turns out to be just her cup of tea.

Baker's prose voice carries the day in this novel. Mendoza is an absolute joy to read. But there's much more than the prose to like. As a writer setting up a series, Baker leaves a lot of very intriguing hints scattered about. As a historical writer exploring Elizabethan England, she knows her subject well enough to make it fascinating, gritty and gripping. As a writer creating characters the reader is going to encounter again and again, she whips up a cast of diverse personalities who are by turns mischievous, romantic, humorous, bitchy and lovable. As a science fiction writer, she knows when to let her imagination run free and when to rein it in. She melds all these disparate parts with the seamless voice of Mendoza the botanist.

'In the Garden of Iden' is clearly the beginning of a series, and as such, it does suffer from "wanting the second novel to hand" syndrome. The paperback version I read had the first chapter of 'Sky Coyote' tacked on to the end, but for readers to whom first hardcover editions are immaterial, I'd strongly suggest picking up either both paperbacks at once or 'On Company Time', an omnibus novel from the Science Fiction Book Club that combines the first two books in the series in one hardcover that's available used from any one of a number of Internet vendors for less than the price of a paperback.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of this book is its very wide appeal. Readers who enjoy authors as diverse as Neal Asher and Ursula K. Le Guin will quite a bit to like in this novel. In fact, I'd suggest that readers buy at least two copies of this book -- one to read for yourself, and one to loan to your friends, because, like me, I suspect that you'll be recommending 'In the Garden of Iden' to just about anyone you know who reads, and they'll quickly tire of you telling them how great the book is before you've even finished it. And if you buy a first edition, make sure you buy a paperback as well. Though, given the cost of first editions, you have to suspect that agents of Doctor Zeus have snapped up a mother lode that they've salted away in somebody's garage, so that they can loan them to an entertainment-starved set of 24th century friends.

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