Time is once again moving forward (has it ever moved backward?). In the third Company novel by Kage Baker, Mendoza in Hollywood, our illustrious immortal Mendoza has to deal with some hard issues. When we last left her in Sky Coyote, she had gone off into early 18th-century northern California where she could be alone and study her plants, away from the strange and disgusting mortals (that would be we normal human beings) that surrounded her.
While I found Sky Coyote to be a flawed but interesting sequel, I love Baker's writing, so I figured that she would rebound in her third book. Boy, did she ever. Mendoza in Hollywood is a masterpiece, having everything from social commentary to fascinating characters to mystery and beyond. We get a brief glimpse of the future, but we see nothing but agonizing hints to what is going on. Baker uses some of the same tricks she used in Sky Coyote, but this time they work. It feels like Baker is maturing as a writer, determined to correct her mistakes and do it right this time. The result is a very entertaining read that will keep all Company fans engrossed and may even attract some new fans.
The story is simple in its complexity (yes, I do mean that). A very simple plot allows a lot of character interaction, resulting in Mendoza having to make a fateful decision. Mendoza is an immortal cyborg created by the Dr. Zeus company in the mid-1500s. The Company invented both immortality and time travel, but there were limitations for both. To make money, they traveled back to the Stone Age, created some cyborgs, and made them Company operatives, tasked to preserve things that will go extinct and to study human civilization. The benefits of this will come sometime in the 2300s, when the Company will reveal all of the samples, including items such as a plant that will help with the cure for cancer. This will make them a lot of money. No one knows what will happen to the cyborgs at this point, though.
Mendoza's first mission (In the Garden of Iden) resulted in her falling in love with an English Protestant doomed to die at the stake in the Catholic Queen Mary's reign. This left her with a harsh feeling toward mortals, and the affair has massive repercussions in Mendoza in Hollywood as she is recalled to a California outpost in 1863 to study and collect samples of some indigenous plants before they go extinct. In the land where Hollywood will be, films are still a big part of life, and the immortals (one in particular) are avid movie buffs, able to point out in the California wild where certain Hollywood legends will come to life. While Mendoza does not like company, she is happy here for awhile -- until dreams of her lost lover begin to haunt her and she starts to feel isolated once again. Life goes on, though, until a familiar-looking man walks through her door, changing her life forever. Will she betray the Company over the image of her old lover? And what does all this have to do with a Confederate and British plot to win California for the Confederacy?
Character interaction is the name of the game in Mendoza in Hollywood, and what wonderful characters Baker has to use. Every one of them is vivid, from the young Juan Batista, who is tasked with collecting rare birds but becomes too attached to them, to the film buff Einar, who brings in the entertainment for the staff at the outpost. This usually consists of rare movies, including the original eight-hour cut of Erich Von Stroheim's Greed and D.W. Griffith's Intolerance. The latter movie is a wonderful character set-piece, as the soundtrack is gone and Einar (along with Imarte, who actually lived in ancient Babylon) does the commentary for the entire film. The sequence is a magical bit of comedy and character development, and is everything that the show in Sky Coyote wasn't. It goes on for just as long (though Mendoza in Hollywood is a longer book, so the portion is smaller) but is much better written.
Other cast members are equally well done, with Porfirio (the outpost's security officer and commander) being the most bland. His history helps define Mendoza's character, though, as she finds out that not all immortals have cut their familial ties with the mortal world. Oscar is a real treat, a salesman who is supposed to study living conditions of people in the area. He goes door to door, trying to sell items and get a look inside the domestic life of his customers. Mendoza accompanies him on some of his jaunts, and the scenes are just delightfully funny.
While there is a running subplot of British conspiracy with the Confederates for control of California (sparked by the neglectful act of a briefcase left by one of Imarte's johns), most of the story is about Mendoza and her interaction with these characters. It might sound boring, but every page of the book is building up her sense of isolation and her desolation over the death of her lover three hundred years ago. She despises mortals because of how weak they are and how ideological they can be. Yet every one of her companions loves interacting with them and has their own way of dealing with them. As Mendoza observes, she feels more and more alone. Even Einar and his movie obsession, while providing some enjoyment, eventually adds to her burden as she realizes that even though they haven't even happened yet, the movies' settings are ephemeral and won't last long. Baker illustrates the burdens of immortality. Some people can deal with it (Joseph, Mendoza's mentor who isn't actually in this book, has been alive for thousands of years), but she can't seem to. Baker paints these characters with such loving detail that you can't help but revel in them.
The book loses a little bit when the conspiracy plot takes center stage, even though Baker keeps the focus clearly on Mendoza and what's happening with her lover's doppelganger. The interaction between them kept me reading, but I started to get tired of the conspiracy itself. However, I cared about what happened to Mendoza, and as I saw her go through hell yet again, for a man so much like her old lover but yet so different, I really felt for her. Baker has brought Mendoza alive, and her ultimate fate is heartbreaking yet slightly uplifting. She finally gets what she wants, but not quite the way she wanted it. I finished the book very quickly, totally engrossed in what was going on. That's the sign of a master author.
With Mendoza in Hollywood, Kage Baker has another winner. It's certainly readable by itself, but it gains so much if you read the first two books before this one. Whatever you do, check this one out.