In the Garden of Iden is Kage Baker's debut novel of "The Company." It's a science fiction novel set in the 1550s, during the reign in Britain of Queen Mary. Baker's fluid style is a joy to read and her transformation from "modern" English to Renaissance and back to modern is wonderful. This is a marvelous debut and I can't wait to read more in the series.
Nobody knows her name, not even her, but she's called Mendoza. She's the latest operative to be recruited away from horrible circumstances (in her case imprisonment by the Spanish Inquisition) to serve Dr. Zeus Incorporated in its eternal quest to make money and preserve some semblance of humanity. Mendoza is made into an immortal cyborg, and trained to be a botanist. It will be her job to find certain species of plant that will become extinct and preserve samples so that it may be reintroduced in the "current" time.
Her first assignment is Renaissance England, and she is not looking forward to it. It smells, there are no flush toilets, bacteria runs rampant, and she has to deal with people who always seem to be trying to kill each other in some conflict or another. However, she accepts it grudgingly, since she really doesn't have any choice. She is to collect samples from the famous Garden of Iden, a garden owned by a British landowner. But the Spanish are not well-liked in England right now, with their prince now married to the current queen and the papish religion being reintroduced to the country (by pain of death, if necessary).
In other words, it's not high on the list of Mendoza's favorite time periods. Then she meets Nicholas, the landowner's assistant and anti-papist zealot. He's intelligent, witty, intense, and extremely sexy, and he attracts the innocent Mendoza like a cat to a can opener. They fall deeply in love and make plans, which unfortunately will go against what the Company wants. The Company might not be the only thing standing in the way, however, with more people being burned at the stake all the time. Will Mendoza and Nicholas figure out how to escape everything and give in to their love? Or is Mendoza doomed to an eternity of missing him?
I've loved Kage Baker's work ever since I read her stories in the various The Year's Best Fantasy books, and I was eager to dive into a novel written by her. It was definitely worth the wait. Her prose style is wonderful and she seamlessly changes dialogue depending on who's talking, giving us the dialect of the time alongside the modern phrasings of a group of cyborgs honed by time travelers. I'm not expert enough to tell whether or not she gets the Renaissance dialogue right, but she certainly makes it feel right. It really makes you feel like you are there listening.
Another thing Baker avoids, for the most part, is making the romance cloying. While there are a few times where Mendoza and Nicholas become annoyingly written, most of the time this is turned on its head by a choice comment from Joseph (the leader of the expedition and Mendoza's recruiter) or something else happening. She doesn't overwrite the romance scenes and she deftly "fades to black" when the sex scenes are about to start. Thus, while the novel definitely has some adult themes, there are no actual scenes that should keep kids away from the book. Instead, she writes about two adults who love each other deeply but know that there are some serious potential problems that might get in the way of that love.
The concept of the Company is very interesting. Time travel and cyborg technology have been invented, so what they do is send operatives back in time to recruit local people, train them in secret facilities (bringing them up to modern standards), turn them into immortal cyborgs, and allow them to do the job of preserving things. They take samples of various things that will become extinct, hide them away for a thousand years, and then "discover" them again in the present. One of Baker's most inspired creations is a radio that broadcasts at a frequency that humans can't hear but which operatives can listen to and find out what is going on locally. Thus, there is a news story about the reintroduction of Papal law in the British parliament, along with commentary similar to a CNN broadcast. It was very innovative.
Baker also does a credible job with the characters. All of the operatives (there are four) in the house are interestingly written and have some sort of way to keep them straight. Nefer is stuck in limbo while she's waiting for an assignment in northern England, and she's also the resident animal expert. She has an affinity for them and takes umbrage at what she sees as the torturing of a goat (when the owner tries to graft a horn on its forehead and call it a unicorn). Joseph has the worn feel of a man who's been around for hundreds of years and has seen it all, but who knows exactly how it feels to be a first-time operative. He's incredibly understanding with Mendoza, forgiving her the jitters and mistakes that any rookie would have. He is a wonderful mentor to her as well. Flavius is harder to know well, but he's not in the book much so there isn't a reason to flesh him out further. The local characters have their character hooks and are recognizably different, but aren't anything special.
The romance would not work if Nicholas were badly done, so it's a good thing that Baker saved her best for him. He is well-rounded with intelligence and wit, and the verbal sparring between Mendoza and him is great. His beliefs are very strong, and he sticks to them through everything. Watching Mendoza try desperately to convince him to run away from the Inquisition that is coming to England is almost heartbreaking. With the exception of a few times, the book sparkles when the two of them are on the page, and he is a worthy companion for Mendoza. When things start to go sour, it's on an understandable basis and Nicholas reacts as he should.
The plot is a bit slow-moving, but interestingly told. It drags in a few places as Baker takes a detour to do a little philosophizing. The trigger event for the climax also feels a bit artificial; Joseph makes a mistake that it doesn't seem he should make with his experience in the field. Then again, these people are human, so mistakes do happen to the best of them. It just feels a little bit too much like it's there just so that the plot could start moving.
Baker has created a wonderful little sci-fi story, and if she can continue to write this strongly, she will continue for a very long time. The fact that there are already three other books, along with a short story collection, bodes well for the success of the series. If you want something new to try, this would be a good one to start with. Even if you don't like science fiction, you might find something in here to enjoy.