Hands down, my favorite thing about this novel is its unique use of time travel. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m a devoted Doctor Who fan, but that sort of time travel puts holes in plots like swiss cheese. Personally, I like my time travel to be complex and flexible, but still hold true to a logical set of rules. In this, Kage Baker has definitely succeeded.
In some not too distant future, a group of scientists and business men get together to solve some mysteries, make some money, and in general try to improve the lot of humanity. To this end, they create time travel. An agent can go anywhere in the past, or their own present, but not into their future. And they discover that they can’t change anything about recorded history. “If history states that John Jones won a million dollars in the lottery on a certain day in the past, you can’t go back there and win the lottery instead. But you can make sure that John Jones is an agent of yours who will purchase the winning ticket and dutifully invest the proceeds for you.” They also discover that they can’t take anything out of the past, but that doesn’t stop them from rescuing famous paintings from their recorded destruction in the past, and hiding them until they can be miraculously “found” in the future. In this way, the company grows, and with each success grows more and more mysterious.
The company also goes back and time and chooses adaptable intelligent children to turn into immortal time traveling agents raised to do the company’s bidding. This is how we meet Mendoza, a poor girl who is born in medieval spain and rescued from certain death at the hands of the inquisition by the company. She is whisked off to a company “school” and spends the next 12 years going through the painful process of becoming a sort of cyborg immortal, and learning the entire history of humanity, through the twenty-fourth century.
She concentrates her studies in botany, and when she is 18 she graduates and receives her first assignment at the home of Sir Walter Iden, in England. It seems the he has a remarkable garden which contains whole species of plants that will soon be extinct. The company wants her to take specimens of each plant to preserve it for the benefit of the future. With her travel several other anthropologist immortals who are there to study the reaction of the locals to the religious upheaval as Queen Mary is at the peak of her protestant prosecution.
Mendoza’s character is rather contradictory. She has little love for humanity (she often refers to mortals as “murderous apes”) and yet she fully believes in her job to find and preserve rare plants for the betterment of humans in the future. She knows she is much superior as an immortal than she would have ever been as a human, yet she clearly dislikes and is angry with Joseph, the man who rescued her from the inquisition and is her mentor in her first assignment. At first she is repelled by Sir Walter’s secretary, but invariably ends up being drawn to him and his stauch refusal to denounce his faith.
As you can guess, involved relationships with mortals are not encouraged by the company. They put the secret of the company at risk, and even if all goes well the mortal will eventually die leaving the agent emotionally bereft. And as you can guess, Mendoza doesn’t care and falls wildly in love with the secretary, Nicholas. And guess what? All does NOT go well…
I would have rated this novel much higher except that it combined two of my least favorite things: First person narrative and heavy handed forshadowing. First person narrative is something that has to be done very very carefully to keep it from becoming…annoying. Characters either become whiny and unlikable, or all-knowing and unrealistically self-less. Its just too difficult to tell a whole story from only one point of view. And when you combine this with unsubtle forshadowing, you get fairly unreadable lines, like “if only I had known what was to befall us then!” and “That summer was so sweet and delightful we didn’t see the storm gathering…” For me, this sort of style does not build suspense, it just makes me want to give up reading the book.
And yet, I did not give up reading the book. I even went and picked up the sequel “Sky Coyote,” which I ended up enjoying much more than this one. “Sky Coyote” is told from the point of view of Joseph, the mentor, who I find is a much more interesting character.
Both books leave you wanting to know more about the motives of the company. Are the good or evil? Who is actually running it? How will Mendoza’s not-so-veiled suggestions of future chaos actually come to pass? There is obviously a conspiracy, but where will it lead? Despite a few stylistic annoyances, I think I will continue reading to find out. Next stop: “Mendoza in Hollywood.”