In the Garden of Iden

by Kage Baker

Cover image

Series: Company #1
Publisher: Avon
Copyright: 1997
Printing: 1999
ISBN: 0-380-73179-7
Format: Mass market
Pages: 294

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In the Garden of Iden is the first book in Kage Baker's Company series and sets the initial background for it, largely in a well-handled infodump introduction. A future civilization has invented time travel, albeit with some limitations. The first is that time travel is only possible backwards. One can return to one's own time after traveling back, but not travel into the future. The second is that the time traveler cannot change history, but this applies only to recorded history. Baker gets around the causality paradox by saying that time travelers can change history, but only if no one is looking.

Dr. Zeus, Incorporated, otherwise known as the Company, decides to use this technology to recover and preserve everything lost from the past: extinct plants and animals, lost works of art, images of destroyed monuments, and so forth. But since physical objects can't be brought forward in time, they need to preserve them by storing them outside of recorded history until they can be "rediscovered" in the future after the point of initial time travel. Their solution is to recruit people from the past who history won't miss and make them immortal agents of the Company. These immortals maintain secret bases and use advanced technology obtained from the future to record and preserve things otherwise lost to history.

As an SF premise, this obviously doesn't make a lot of sense. As a setup for a good time travel series, it's excellent. Hidden bands of immortals are great fodder for all sorts of cloak and dagger action with a hint of conspiracy theories, and the restriction on not changing recorded history is a great excuse for secret history and lots of fast talking while keeping the mind-boggling implications of time travel under control. In the Garden of Iden introduces the reader to this world by following a girl rescued from the Spanish Inquisition, made immortal, and sent on her first mission to Elizabethan England to catalog and sample rare plants from the botanical gardens of Sir Walter Iden.

I'd been avoiding this book a bit because I wasn't sure I wanted to read about time traveling to Elizabethan England. Many authors seem far more enamored of the period than I am, and I was a bit leery of endless pseudo-archaic language and drop-ins by historical figures. Thankfully, my fears were groundless; while there is some archaic language, it feels like an acting job by the likeable and sarcastic first-person narrator who otherwise uses thoroughly modern language. The ever-present sense of double identity keeps the story exciting. And, the characters stay almost entirely in Sir Iden's household, so there's no wandering about to encounter famous people.

The narrator was the highlight of the book for me. Baker does a great job with Mendoza, capturing both self-possessed resourcefulness and some of the emotional wildness of youth. I liked her immensely throughout, even through an ill-conceived love affair (which is not as much of the book as the back cover might make you think). She's teamed up with a couple of much older operatives, and the interplay of attitude and reactions between them feels right. They have a somewhat more casual attitude towards being discovered than Mendoza does, backed by the ability to put on and take off roles at the drop of a hat and fast-talk their way through plausible explanations. Baker makes use of the restrictions of time travel to describe characters who feel like average people muddling along with bursts of ingenuity and quick thinking, rather than intricately planned and carefully executed missions of constant deception. It makes the characters feel more like people (and means that the reader has far fewer twisty details to keep track of). The tendency for the immortals to get rather obsessive about their areas of study is wonderfully done, adding humor without undermining the plot.

Baker's time travelers don't mingle in the great affairs of the day. They watch them in much the same way that students of history watch them, while trying to maintain their cover stories and fulfill their mission in one out-of-the-way estate. I wish more historical SF mixed history with people this effectively and smoothly. And there's plenty of background material that builds the framework for a longer series: the Company is not entirely benign, the immortals have a deep distaste for mortals and find different personal ways of thinking about and justifying their mission, and there are some constant questions about just who is in charge of this whole thing and whether they really know everything that's going on. In the Garden of Iden comes to a dramatic and satisfying conclusion of its own, but left me wanting to read more and learn more about just what's going on behind the scenes.

The downside of this book for me is that it does have a somewhat annoying love affair with the protagonist as a major plot element through much of the book, and as is often the case with young love on first sight, I had a hard time not rolling my eyes at it. While I won't spoil the eventual direction of that part of the plot, I suspect most readers will guess it from the first few moments and find the denseness of the characters at recognizing it rather frustrating. Baker does justify this thoroughly with the age and background of her protagonist, but I still could have done with a bit less of the sappiness. Thankfully, there's plenty of snark in the rest of the book and a fair bit of plot apart from the love affair.

With a great narrator, a lot of snark, plenty of excuses for delightful lies and fast-talking, and history that's more interesting atmosphere than tedious name-dropping, this is one of the better historical time travel books that I've read. There's enough interesting background to pull one into the world, but Baker doesn't tie things up in temporal knots and lets her characters carry the story. I suspect I'll end up reading most of the Company series if they're as well-written as this.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2010-03-08

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21