Kage Baker moves forward with her ongoing tale of "The Company" with The Machine’s Child. In my review of The Children of the Company, I complained that too much backstory was filled in and that my two favorite characters (not to mention the two biggest mysteries in the series) weren't dealt with. After filling in the blanks, this one takes the entire story forward, concentrating almost solely on these Joseph & Mendoza and taking the story forward almost to the time of the great silence, 2355. The main problem is that it seems too much like a setup for the grand finale (coming next year, I hope), and the Alec/Mendoza storyline greatly contributes to this feeling.
This book is much more focused than The Children of the Company. It deals with two main storylines, as well as a little bit of a third. On the other hand, it jumps all over time, but that's mainly because the characters do as well. The first story is about Alec Checkerfield and his two other incarnations, Edward Alton Bell-Fairfax and Nicholas Harpole. All are creations of the company using the same basic DNA, and all of them have fallen in love with the Immortal botanist Mendoza, who has been secreted in the distant past by the Company. All three co-exist within Alec's mind, and all three can alternately use his body (though only one at a time). There's also Alec's artificial intelligence, Captain Morgan (yes, Alec has a fascination with pirates), who is helping Alec get even with the Company and rescue Mendoza. There's just one problem: none of the three aspects of Alec get along, and all have their sensibilities from their own time periods: 1550, 1862, and Alec's 24th century attitudes. Watching them interact can be a treat at times.
The other story follows Joseph, a 20,000 year-old Immortal who rescued Mendoza and made her into one, so he considers her his daughter. He has also been looking for her since she disappeared in 1862 and has gone a little nuts in his solitude. He's cut himself off from the Company and gone rogue, trying to revive his father, Budu, an Immortal enforcer who was poisoned and cut into little pieces back in 1906. Budu is hidden away in a secret facility, but Joseph has finally found him. Joseph is discovering secrets about the Company and its plans for Mendoza, as well as the Company's role in the creation of Alec, and he is now on the warpath set in before him by his father. While it was disheartening at first to see how desperate Joseph has become and how dependent on Budu he is, he begins to show his intelligence and tenaciousness during his search. The confrontation that eventually happens between Joseph and the three Alecs (along with Mendoza) is a wonder to read about. Baker handles it beautifully, making you care for both sides but knowing that Joseph is the one who's in the right (though whether that impression ever changes, I can't tell you).
The entire Alec storyline is basically one of the romance between these three beings in one body and Mendoza, who has also been brutalized by the Company. Captain Morgan is able to revive her, but she barely has any memory, and thus I was missing the Mendoza I've loved since In the Garden of Iden. She is still interesting, and we o see flashes as her memory started coming back, but I am really looking forward to her regaining her faculties. Her story is a tragic one, as she has been constantly abused by the Company and its agents. Baker does a good job of showing how all of the parties involved love her in their own way, but she also effectively shows that the plans that at least one of the aspects of Alec have for her aren't exactly something that will be good for her.
Throughout these two storylines, Baker moves the overarching plot forward, hinting at what's going to be happening soon. The Company has plans for its Immortals that they're not telling anybody, but rebellion is brewing among the ranks. Other Immortals are disappearing, and three years before the Silence, badges have been sent out to all of the Immortals to "thank" them for their years of service. All Company operatives are required to wear them. This doesn't bode well, and Baker captures this sense of foreboding perfectly. The characters involved (some of them introduced in The Children of the Company, so perhaps it's a good thing she went back to introduce them) fit this perfectly, moving the big picture forward even as the rest of the book concentrates on the personal lives of Mendoza and Joseph. Baker jumps around in good fashion, showing the approach to 2355 as an occasional break from the extremely emotional stories of our other two protagonists.
Weaving these stories together, Baker showcases her characterization skills. I love the warring personalities inside Alec's head, and Mendoza's confusion when the 24th-century Alec suddenly starts speaking like a 16th-century religious fanatic - or a 19th-century British spy. Joseph, as already mentioned, is wonderful, but Baker shows her skill especially when it comes to the minor characters. There's Mavis, the innkeeper in 2317 who Joseph befriends and occasionally sleeps with during his forays into civilization, for example. She's not a main character, but Baker gives her a hint of depth, mainly using the different years when Joseph comes to visit to show us how she has changed, especially in Joseph's eyes.
If The Machine’s Child has one fault, it's that the Alec/Mendoza storyline starts to drag a little. It moves forward, but some passages seem to take longer to get anywhere than others. The dialogue between the three Alecs is sharp, but I sometimes just want to knock their heads together and get them to shut up. It doesn't help that these are the longer chapters in the book. Still, the overall story is interesting enough to the reader’s attention. The fact that this is all a setup for the final book adds to the slowness of the sequences at times, though.
The climax to The Machine’s Child is riveting and definitely leaves a lot of balls in the air for the final book. I can't say enough about the book, as Baker is back on form and giving us a lot of intrigue. The finale's going to be one hell of a ride, and I can't wait.