This is the novel that launched the popular series: The Company. Dr. Zeus, Inc., sends its agents back in time to collect and preserve works of art, extinct forms of life, all manner of valuable treasures and documents. It recruits orphans throughout history, transforms them into immortal cyborgs, and trains them to serve The Company. Mendoza the botanist is one such agent. She is sent to sixteenth-century England to collect samples from the garden of sir Walter Iden. But while there, she meets Nicholas Harpole, with whom she falls in love. And that love sounds great bells of change that will echo down the centuries, and through the succeeding novels of The Company.
This was such an intelligent book. Everything is done so well. Just… all the different threads connected in a really pleasing way, like a multidimensional jigsaw puzzle with a thousand teeny pieces that all fit together in the end to make a wonderfully creative object. If you can forgive the bad simile, such is this story.
Kage Baker came up with a concept of how time travel works that I really like – events and situations that are known to have happened due to textual or other forms of evidence can’t be tampered with (which is convenient, as this means you can’t accidentally prevent yourself from being born by killing your ancestors). However, anything not committed to the recorded body of historical knowledge is fair game. It’s such an awesome idea, as that’s pretty much how the study of history works. You can only use the evidence you have at hand to reconstruct the past, and anything else that you’re not one hundred percent sure about, you can make educated guesses about or extemporize, but almost anything could have happened in those blank spaces. History, how it’s written, and how it’s manipulated to tell a certain story are all particularly relevant to my interests at this time, as my history junior seminar is all about the history of history as a discipline.
As such, this book (and hopefully the series?) is alternate history science fiction. This particular story takes place in England during Queen Mary’s reign in 1553, and this point in time and location are captured so well. It all felt rich and colorful and textured and alive. The author depicted a period of English history with greater diversity and intersecting political and religious opinions than is normally given credit for. I’m also assuming Kage Baker had a background in English dialect as well as history, for the language the characters used felt particularly authentic (as far as I can tell) without becoming unreadable, which is a problem I have with older, written versions of English. Given Kage Baker’s skill at historical worldbuilding, if all the other books take place in different historical time periods and locations, I will be one happy reader.
I was unsure how I would feel about Mendoza being the protagonist, as she turns into an arrogant brat after the Company turns her into a cyborg. As a result of her Company-given education, she is convinced that all humans are mindless, bloodthirsty monkeys and wants nothing to do with them. But through her assignment to 1550’s England from the Company, she meets Nicholas, has many scintillating, intellectual conversations with him, and falls completely and hopelessly in love him. I was not excpecting there to be as strong a love story as there was in this book, but I greatly enjoyed it. The two of them fall in love with each other because they each love how the other is smart. Romantic/sexual attraction based on intelligence? I love it! Where do I sign up? And because she falls in love, Mendoza undergoes a lot of change as she grudgingly accepts that “mere mortals” might have some redeeming qualities. Not only that, she starts questioning what the Company has turned her into and wonders whether she has any humanity left, or has her immortality changed everything.
Also, Kage Baker is really clever. I knew this already, having read The Anvil of the World, but reading this book reminded me of this fact. She’s always making little, wry observations about humans, societies, and how they work and the silly things each do. This book was able to satisfy both the entertainment and intellectual parts of my brain, and that made me happy.
The only thing I’m confused about is who the man and woman were who bought Mendoza when she was a child, as this event is the catalyst for the entire story. Obviously they weren’t who they claimed to be, but I couldn’t tell if they were from that time period or if they were agents of the Company gone back in time to do their job. It’s left ambiguous enough that I assume this issue might be returned to in later books, maybe? Right now, it just feels like a loose end that wasn’t properly addressed. Also, I’m really excited to read the rest of the books because The Company and their ultimate goal are still shrouded in secrecy. I’m betting by the end, there will be a big showdown between the Company and its agents.
Overall, this was a really enjoyable book, and one that made me very happy. Now I need to read the rest of the Company books, which I will attempt to do, somewhere in the midst of all my other reading and schoolwork.
Disclosure – library